The Future of Newspapers | Monitor

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Last week, May 3, the media commemorated World Press Freedom Day. While most reports and discussions focused on the harassment of journalists and the pressure exerted on the media by governments around the world, a far more existential threat hangs over the media.

The Internet – that global network of interconnected computers and mobile devices that has disrupted society and the economy so much over the past 25 years – has begun to wreak havoc on traditional media.

Most people in the media blame the internet and social media for robbing them of their previously loyal audience, which more than anything reflects media’s sense of entitlement and failure to grasp the pattern of the new digital and internet era.

The biggest mistake made and still made by the mainstream media is the view that the main purpose of the media is to hold the government or political authorities to account.

The media is seen as the “fourth estate” of the state, implying a watchdog role, and this is the source of the false sense of entitlement.

Certainly, government policies, budgets, announcements, laws and actions play an important role in national life and the media rightly covers them.
However, there is much more to society than government, which the media collectively seems unable to acknowledge.

For decades, the general public was forced to trust what the media did with their coverage (i.e., government corporations and political leaders) because there was no alternative to radio, television and printed newspapers.

For this reason, advertisers have also been forced to place their notices and branded promotional advertisements on the pages of prime time newspapers on radio and television.

As three-quarters of newspaper revenue came from advertising, both display and classified, newspapers flourished and as a result came to believe that their focus on political reporting and analysis was the reason for which advertisers flocked to them.

Advertising and the media have become dovetailed. The Internet arrived in the late 1990s and this historic intertwining of advertising with the media began to break down.

Specialty classified websites like Craig’s List shook up the lucrative US newspaper classifieds market, and specialty websites quickly became serious competitors to established newspaper titles.

Millions of websites specializing in music, sports, fashion, history, pets, cars, cooking, politics, movies, design, poetry, painting and more subjects show that there was a pent-up need for an extremely varied range of subjects. and the mainstream media, with their tendency to focus newspaper front pages and television reports on government or politics, limited the public’s options.

In the second half of the 2000s, technology companies such as Google and later Facebook, with their billions of users, naturally became more attractive to advertisers than national or regional newspapers, all of which focused on government news.

The emergence of lifestyle and entertainment websites and apps such as Instagram and, over the past two years, TikTok, each with over a billion users, shows that the narrow focus of newspapers on presidents, parliaments, governments and elections was not a wise strategy.

I’m going to give you an example. I do a lot of research on societal tastes, thinking, and trends using Google data. Here is an example of my recent research. People of most interest in Uganda: in the 24-hour period, April 22-23.
Source: Google tracking data
1) Bobi Wine, 45%
2) Muhoozi Kainerugaba, 34%
3) David Lutalo, 26%
4) Yoweri Museveni, 19%
5) John Blaq, 17%
6) Sheebah Kalungi, 13%
7) Baby Cool, 11%
It was, remember, the 24-hour period preceding the party in Kololo and Lugogo to mark the birthday of Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

Women read copies of Monitor in 1993. PHOTO/FILE

Understandably, the media, with its default focus on government and political figures of interest or prestige, largely covered Muhoozi’s rise to power.

However, this Google data that tracks news reading, Google searches, Google Maps referrals and YouTube watch time, shows there was strong national interest in musicians David Lutalo, Bebe Cool, John Blaq and Sheebah Kalungi.

How many potential buyers of print copies have Ugandan newspapers missed by ignoring or unaware of this interest in leading Ugandan musicians?

This narrow view of the media’s role of holding government to account has led to the current crisis facing print newspapers – how to navigate the new reality of declining readership and the disappearance of advertising.

It should be noted that the Internet and digital technology have disrupted many other industries as well.
From around 2010 in Uganda, money transfer services introduced by telecom companies ate away at retail and over-the-counter services that for decades had been the preserve of commercial banks.

While in the 1990s long queues in banking halls were a familiar sight, today those banking halls are mostly empty, most of the time, as the public has moved to the thousands of mobile money kiosks in neighborhoods and malls.

To serve this demanding new media landscape, print media must look to two important examples.
The first concerns American and British financial newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times of London, as well as “quality” newspapers such as the New York Times and the Telegraph of London.
The second example involves US video streaming services like Netflix, Disney+ and HBO and music streaming service Spotify.

In the early days of the Internet, from around 1994 to 2012, newspapers published their content for free, operating on the model of a large number of readers automatically attracted by advertising.

So the overriding question is: with so much news content available online and for free, why would millions of people pay for a subscription to The New York Times?

With hundreds of hours of video uploaded to YouTube every day, why would people pay a monthly subscription to Disney+ or Netflix?

With music available on hundreds of MP3 streaming sites, why are millions of people paying a monthly Spotify subscription for the same music?

And why is it that with all the roadside kiosks in Bugolobi, Kabalagala and Wandegeya selling tasty chicken, sausages and fries, many people flock to Cafe Javas and KFC where the same fast food costs on average three times more than what is sold at the roadside?
In this lie clues to the future of printed newspapers.
Quality matters. Added value matters. Overall experience matters.
People are willing to pay a premium if they think a product or service is high quality or comes with an air of prestige.
A glance through any Ugandan, Kenyan or Tanzanian print or online newspaper shows that quality is not the first thing that comes to mind; quality of photography, grammar, spelling, news supply and diversity of content.

News and information are always important to most people.
On the contrary, the internet and social media in particular have unwittingly caused the greatest explosion in reading, writing and watching videos in history.

Since every smartphone now has a camera and every social media account has made everyone an editor and a journalist, the global media industry has grown so much over the past 15 years that everyone world, of all backgrounds and careers, is now, in a sense, a journalist.

Even on social media sites like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, the majority of original content and that which shapes public debate comes from traditional television and print newspapers.
The top two Ugandan native websites in terms of online traffic are Daily Monitor and New Vision.

The three industries or categories of people with the highest number of social media followers in Uganda are musicians, journalists and politicians.
Many journalists have found that one of the surefire ways to succeed in state or district electoral politics is to leverage their notoriety.

Therefore, far from being an irrelevant and declining industry, the news media, not only in America and Europe, but also in Africa and Uganda, is at the forefront not only in the use active in new digital technology, but in the public perception of media personalities as opinion and information leaders.

The key for Ugandan media is to accept the new reality of digital publishing and distribution and, above all, to learn the most important lesson from The New York Times and Netflix – giving people quality, credibility and insight from an authoritative brand, and people will pay for the subscription.
But… it really needs to be of high image quality and very relevant and engaging.
Focus

The emergence of lifestyle and entertainment websites and apps such as Instagram and, over the past two years, TikTok, each with over a billion users, shows that the narrow focus of newspapers on presidents, parliaments, governments and elections was not a wise strategy.

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