Print is Back! But did it ever go away?

At World Newspaper Week in Vienna, editors hold on to their traditional business – despite the digital age, newspapers thrive through analysis and the journalistic integrity of "being there"

The perennial printing press | Photo: pinlaser.com

Esaya Isaak took a step to the microphone, but remained speechless. Too overcome with emotion was he after receiving the 2011 Golden Pen of Press Freedom on behalf of his brother, Dawit Isaak, who has been imprisoned in Eritrea without trial since 2001 for criticising the government in Setit, the country’s first independent newspaper which he founded.

The prize was awarded by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), an organisation based in Paris and Darmstadt (Germany) that represents 18,000 publications worldwide, during its annual World Newspaper Week held in Vienna this October. Staged at the modern Prater Messe conference centre, the event aimed to promote press freedom and the exchange of ideas and contacts between editors, publishers, and new media types. After the 15-minute award ceremony ended with a short gig by the Austrian pop-rock band Opus, it was clear where the emphasis of the remaining conference would lie: While only 17% of humanity has a free press, it is precisely there that the money is made, accounting for 90% of global newspaper circulation and advertising revenue.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the lion’s share of that revenue continues to be made by print media rather than online, WAN-IFRA’s CEO Christoph Riess pointed out in his presentation of the eagerly awaited 2011 World Press Trends. While global daily circulation dropped last year by 2% – from 528M copies in 2009, to 519M in 2010 – newspapers still reach significantly more people than the internet: 2.3 billion compared to 1.9 billion on a typical day. Accordingly, advertisers continue to pay substantially more for print media, which they regard as more efficient in reaching large audiences and more effective than online ads, Riess said.

Yet circulation patterns are uneven: “Circulation is like the sun. It continues to rise in the East and decline in the West,” Riess put it succinctly. Over the last five years, daily newspaper sales increased by 16% in the Asia Pacific region, and by 4.5% in Latin America, while they dropped by 11% in Europe, and, worst of all, by 17% in North America. Remarkably, in spite of this trend, Austria comes second in the world for daily newspaper sales, selling an average of 162,000 copies per title, after Japan’s 461,000 copies.

While print circulation is declining in the West, this is more than compensated by an increase in online audiences, Riess pointed out. The trick is how to make money from them. Long feared that it would deter readers, paid access to newspapers’ online editions is becoming more popular. During a session on paywalls, The New York Times’ assistant managing editor, Jim Roberts, said his paper has attracted 224,000 online-only subscribers since putting up a paywall in March, while 756,000 subscribers to the print edition have activated their complimentary online accounts. Unlike the Financial Times’ impenetrable paywall, however, The New York Times has opted for a mixed model: Internet users will still be able to access articles for free via links on Google and social media, considered essential for attracting new readers to the site. A viable business model for mobile telephone and tablet computer applications, however, remains elusive.

Digital media pose new challenges not only for news circulation, but also for its creation. As such, a major focus was how journalists can harness digital tools to research and tell a story. “Data journalism” (or “crowd sourcing”), for instance, invites readers to collaborate in providing and organising information. For example, Ushahidi, a project from Kenya funded by the Knight Foundation for media innovation, maps incidents of corruption or natural disasters online according to text messages sent in by users.

Yet, while the lobby was brimming with entrepreneurs offering ways to cut down on reporters by sourcing articles and video clips online, Philippe Massonnet, the news director of Agence France Presse, recalled journalism’s traditional raison d’etre: Newspapers were trusted to verify claims and provide analysis. If they are to retain their credibility – and their readers – they must continue to invest in reporting from the ground: “Be there,” Massonnet implored.

Yet World Newspaper Week neglected the question that Dawit Isaak forces us to ask: Whom are we there for?

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