Will the Printed Newspaper Be Extinct by 2040?

Documentary ‘The Press: Towards a Paperless World?’

02 September 2014


According to an Australian study (see illustration below) yes, with the U.S. phasing out the medium as early as 2017. We have heard seemingly endless doom and gloom about the state of journalism and the news industry. Hundreds of newspapers have closed and readership is disappearing, along with jobs. These fears are not unfounded, but are there positive outcomes of the news industry's upheaval? The 90-minute documentary, ‘The Press: Towards a Paperless World?’ (original title: ‘Presse: vers un monde sans papier ?’) presents the digital revolution through a 'change is good' lens. The film premiered last week on Franco-German channel Arte (see the trailer in German).

Newspaper Exctinction

The doc does not gloss over the negative outcomes of news digitalisation. Yet the majority those interviewed represent many opportunities for growth and innovation in reporting. The news industry must adapt faced with new competitors but also armed with new tools like social networks and readership data. Filmmakers Marie-Eve Chamard and Philippe Kieffer present a hopeful view on media disruption. The message is one of, albeit cautious, optimism and hope for the news industry. Here are some of our biggest takeaways from the documentary.

If you're worried that journalism as a profession will become obsolete, fear not. In response to a query on the evolution of citizen journalism, Frédéric Filloux (General Director of Digital Projects at Les Echos) responded, ‘When you have a toothache, you wouldn’t go to a citizen dentist. Journalism remains a profession with a certain set of rules. […] I don’t think it can be improvised.’ Filloux was interviewed during the GEN Summit 2013 in Paris as well as two other GEN Board members, Wolfgang Blau (The Guardian News & Media) and Sylvie Kauffmann (Le Monde).




News has always been about competing in the marketplace but previously, that marketplace was other newspapers. Readers’ attention has shifted and news must compete for screen time. Editor for WELT-Group Jan-Eric Peters explains in the doc, ‘Our competition is now Spotify and WhatsApp’. And indeed, a next step for news is taking advantage of readers’ ability to interact. Video games could become part of the news media landscape in a big way. The film uses the example of Budget Hero, where a user could manage the U.S. national budget, manipulate it and see the consequences of their decisions. This type of interaction lends itself to a much richer understanding of the subject than was previously possible with just an article.

A theme among many interviewees stated that if their news still has a paper version, it’s almost an afterthought, or a distraction. Pure players are taking over where traditional print media has fallen behind. Indian site News Laundry, targets a young anglophone audience of Indians both at home and abroad. They stress that for them, a strong social media presence is a non-negotiable. ‘Facebook and Twitter are not just tools, they’re putting us on the map.’ says co-founder Madhu Trehan. Her colleague adds, ‘Social networks have built the stadium, we play ball’.

Another advantage of the digital revolution is the ability to acquire real readership data. With paper, news media could keep track of copies sold, but not much else. Today, readership data has become a driving force in editorial decisions. A major player in the collection of this data is Chartbeat, a New York-based company that gathers information about news readerships in over 30 countries, including three-quarters of the U.S. market. Chartbeat’s CEO Tony Haile explains that they try to identify which articles work, which don’t and why. The goal is to help media adapt: ‘If you can identify the weak link and change it, you can have a hit on your hands’.

Could we go so far as to say we entering a golden age of news media? Professor Michael Shapiro (Columbia Journalism School) thinks so. He feels no nostalgia for a world of ink and paper: ‘What we did before, was it really that great?’

'The Press: Towards a Paperless World?' serves as a reminder that the news industry today is not only acting in response to crisis and uncertainty. There are countless instances of talent and creativity that continue to emerge from this new media landscape. Perhaps the journalism is indeed moving past crisis and into a new golden age.

See the documentary trailer in French and in German.

Presse Monde Sans Papier


See also:

What's your digital media profile? Take Arte's quiz (in French and German).

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