Opinion / 25 November 2013, 08:00am / Ellis Mnyandu
A lot is said about the miserable state of the newspaper industry the world over. Falling advertising revenue, shrinking circulation, cost cutting, demoralised staff and a broken business model all typify the kind of expressions that now accompany any conversation about newspapers these days.
But signs that the newspaper industry was in for some rough seas did not just suddenly emerge with the advent of iPads, smartphones, Twitter and Facebook.
There has been a long and gradual descent to the bottom. So in many respects the notion that the newspaper industry is in trouble is not new. Put in another way – it is not news.
The real news is how newspaper executives have underestimated, and continue to underestimate, the threat of technology to their business. They also continue to miscalculate the benefits of technology.
Blinkered leadership is what has brought about the misfortunes of the print media industry, not technology. Conventional thinking thus far has been: this is how we’ve always done it! Taking this to another extreme, it is clear to see what a delusional mindset can do to foster a “not invented here” attitude. Therein is the self-deception that has cost the industry billions of rands in lost opportunities.
The word opportunity is critical because it is what innovators see in a time of crisis. It is what risk-takers – those not afraid to invent and experiment – see when others recoil with fear and uncertainty.
Former US president John F Kennedy once made this powerful observation: “The Chinese use two brush-strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush-stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity.” Today, some people even speak of “crisi-tunity”.
In case you missed it, this past Friday the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination during a visit to Dallas on November 22, 1963.
So therefore, if newspapers thought at first that they were there to serve their readers, and not the other way around, the current reality would have been different.
But what has happened in the past decade and a half is that we have seen newspapers divorcing themselves from their core constituency.
In other words, newspapers have done very little to stay relevant, yet the need for credible news, greater insight and analysis has never been greater in an era of quick soundbites and 140-character snippets from all and sundry.
Even in the face of a technological onslaught, the industry should have foreseen that the readers were its strongest ally in a bid for survival, and it therefore was pertinent to align strategies with what the readers were gravitating toward.
All is not lost, however.
My belief is that the challenges confronting the industry represent a necessary catalyst for the industry to change, adapt and evolve. That is exactly how things work even beyond the confines of the newspaper world.
I do not see the advent of technology and platforms like Twitter as signalling a terminal decline of the industry. This time is akin to what the motor industry faced when the aviation industry pushed human travel into new frontiers.
Today those two industries complement each other, and each has found ways to capitalise on technology to chart a new course into the future. Newspapers must do likewise.
I am sure that with the arrival of e-mail, many thought the end of face-to-face communication had arrived. The last time I checked, the fundamental human need to connect has not changed. There are just a lot more ways to do that today.
Likewise, the fundamental role of newspapers – not only to report, but to help people connect with their world – remains.
The issue is how newspapers intend to go about putting the reader first. Will it be via firewalls or paywalls? That really is a million-dollar question, and everyone with an interest in seeing the newspaper industry thriving again will work hard to figure out the answer.
Granted, it might take time to get to the answer but a search for it would be worth all the effort because to do otherwise would mean the newspaper industry has no other alternative but to become a relic of the past.
* Ellis Mnyandu is the editor of Business Report. Follow him on Twitter @Ellis_Mnyandu.