Print journalism: Light at the end of the tunnel?

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No – it’s not a typo! Last week’s Economist published an article under the headline: “Newspapers: not dead yet”. For years it seemed as if the death of newspapers was only a matter of time. The Internet and its free content promised to be their grave digger. However: “German and Brazilian papers shrugged off the recession … Even American newspapers, which inhabit the most troubled corner of the global industry, have not only survived but often returned to profit”, says the article.

And it goes on: “The profit margin on its German national newspapers is a startling 27% … In emerging markets one must look hard to find any sign of crisis at all.” Because of the newspapers’ drastic cost-cuts, print journalism might actually have a future. According to the Economist, in the US “13,500 newsroom jobs have gone since 2007. Readers are paying more for slimmer products.”

This surely is stunning news. Could it be that a big mantra in media studies – the moaning over the death of good old print journalism – might actually be outdated?

On the other hand: What does it all mean for journalism itself? Only because the technical platform, the medium newspaper, might survive, this does not necessarily have to be good news for society.

Just a short reference to Robert McChesney’s 2003 classic article about “The Problem of Journalism” (mainly in the US context). McChesney is, of course, a rather extreme and very critical author. However, his political economy analysis raises many insights that are widely recognized: He talks of “lowballing editorial budgets” that “has proven extremely profitable, at least in the short term” (308).

However, from his point of view, “the effects of this budget-cutting mania on journalism arguably have been entirely negative … Fewer reporters means it is easier for public relations executives to get their client’s messages into the news unadulterated by journalism … International coverage has been a victim of corporate cost cuts. Likewise, investigative journalism … is now on the endangered species list” (309).

Well, this text is seven years old. And in the one way or another it has haunted me throughout my whole student life. But when I read in the Economist that “More radical surgery will be needed” and that in the US “many newspapers have plumped for local news and sport, leaving everything else to bigger outfits or to wire services like the Associated Press”, it seems more valid then ever: Print journalism is dying, no matter if the medium itself survives.

What kind of journalism are we hoping to get, when we buy a newspaper? What does it help if the papers survive – but their content becomes more and more a re-print of central news agencies? The discussion about the Reuters’ photo policy is just one example of this problem.

The fact that the German WAZ group withdraws from Serbia shows that there is a desperate need for growth – sometimes at a high price.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for newspaper journalism? I will not pretend to know the answer. But I have a point of view: The medium survives, the content declines. What does it matter then if newspapers “may be able to contemplate more than mere survival?” What kind of life would that be?