This is the third or fourth time in recent years that I’ve written about the crisis in the newspaper industry.
I doubt it will be my last, as I am really concerned about the fate of the newspapers; not just for the obvious reason that I contribute to it, but as part of my broader interest in global business trends, consumer tastes and the evolution of digital technology.
It gnaws at my heart to see the steady decline in newspaper circulation and news media revenue in general since 2008.
Many reasons have been given before by me and others for this disturbing trend.
Newspapers do not produce enough quality content. Newspapers have a cover price that the market cannot afford. Newspapers have been rendered useless by the rise of social media.
The explanations are endless, with the media industry primarily the target of the blame game.
I frequently visit websites not only of Ugandan origin, but also of British, American, Chinese and European media brands.
One goes to the website, one reads this really thoughtful, rich and well-written article on fashion, technology, a major new world story or historical topic.
At the end of the 1,500 word article, there is no reader comment. I mean zero comments. Sometimes one or at most two comments.
If some Ugandan newspapers are to blame for poor quality content, what is the explanation of world class newspapers and magazines publishing very good articles, but at the end of the articles there are no comments?
Does this mean that they are no longer read at all? How did we get there ?
For the past four years or so, a thought has lingered in my mind as to the main reason for all of this after looking at the global oil industry.
In September 1960, five major oil producers, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq came together to form a body called the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Over the decades they have been joined by Indonesia, Angola, Nigeria, Libya, the United Arab Emirates and others.
OPEC’s goal was to bring these oil-producing countries together in a cartel by which they would agree on the production of oil and gas within carefully regulated quotas.
Without this cartel operation, it would have been easy for them to flood the world market with oil, leading to a glut and a drop in the price of the raw material below profitability.
Likewise, the global Internet revolution that began in the late 1990s brought incredible connectivity and a wealth of information to the fingertips of billions of people, most of it for free.
Unfortunately, some of the biggest casualties of this information overload have been the industries for which information is the product and the source of revenue – the music industry, the newspaper industry, in particular.
One argument is that social media gives most people most of the information they need, so why buy a newspaper or watch TV?
In fact, when spending time on social media, it quickly becomes apparent that most of the content that most engages audiences on these social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook are stories published by newspapers. General public.
If we were to go a day or a week without publishing a single log or posting information on social media, social media wouldn’t have much to say.
Yes, there would still be the usual gossip and posting of graduation photos and selfies.
But society as a whole would be left in the dark when it comes to the public affairs and current affairs discussions that tend to bring society together.
Barring one or two celebrity scandals, on a typical day all year round, the hottest topics on the internet, whether on Google search or Twitter’s trending topics section, are always hot topics. topical.
And it is not only in Uganda, but also all over the world.
This, to me, shows that the news media are still at the heart of society. It’s still the most important source of meaningful content both on the internet in general and on social media.
In the United States and Western Europe, there has been an anarchic attempt to introduce digital paywalls on newspaper websites.
The results are a success for a handful of newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and especially for the New York Times in the United States, and the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and the Financial Times in the United Kingdom.
Paywalls cannot work for the media industry in general when the amount of free news content available online still dwarfs the content behind paywalls by a factor of 2,500 to 1.
But if the newspaper and magazine industry got together in an OPEC-like cartel and agreed from Day X to take all of its content off social media and put it behind paywalls on its websites, and, just as important, to make it as easy to pay for access as it is today to pay one’s water or electricity bill, even with a simple mobile phone, the crisis of the sudden fall in newspaper revenues would finally be stemmed.
This, in my opinion, is the missing element in the newspaper crisis.