Death of Newspapers: Newspapers vital to democratic culture

David Kilgour
David vs. David

Newspapers occupy a vital role in Canada and every democratic nation and probably always will, despite those who argue that electronic media can adequately replace them. To many observers, television news simply adds visuals to news carried first by print publications.

In 1961, President John Kennedy noted, "It is to the printing press…the recorder of man's deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his newsthat we have looked for strength and assistance, confident that with its help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent."

Daily newspaper circulation in the U.S., however, fell by 15 per cent since 2008 alone, while ad revenues dropped by 42 per cent. In Europe, both these indicators fell by a quarter during the same period. Job cuts, outsourcing, and a pay wall push in the face of plunging advertising sales at Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper chain, Post-Media, also indicate more problems on the horizon.

Theories abound as to what is squeezing print publications, but it’s not because people don’t read. Newspapers and publishing chains got into financial difficulty often by going into debt to buy other media at unreasonable prices. Many Canadian news operations have already undergone rounds of buyouts and layoffs, leaving newsrooms depleted and good journalists decrying declines in quality. With the growing use of digital news, more changes are probably coming.

[ David T. Jones: Time to accept the inevitable conclusion ]

On the bright side, there are good indications that readers are now ready to pay for online content.  Most Canadian dailies are expected to have embarked on the great pay wall experiment by the end of this year. Meanwhile, most newspapers aren’t quite dying. Mid-sized newspapers are coping; some larger ones are doing quite well. In much of the world particularly developing countries newspaper publishing is flourishing.

World Press Trends in its 2013 report concluded that print circulations continue to grow in many developing markets, while declining in mature ones. Consumers are turning to digital platforms to interact with news media. More than half the world’s adult population reads a daily newspaper: 2.5 billion in print and more than 600 million in digital form. Five hundred million read both print and online editions. The global newspaper audience has grown by 4.2 percent since 2007. Circulation rose 4.8 percent in the Middle East and North Africa. Western Europe and North America still have the highest levels of readership by region.

In India, more than 107 million copies of daily newspapers were circulated in 2009. The Times of India has a daily circulation of 4.3 million, making it the largest English-language paper on earth. In China, more than 114 million daily papers are in circulation under the always predictable and often bizarre news and editorial control of the party-state.

The BBC attributes the popularity of newspapers in developing markets to growing literacy, relatively low Internet use, cheap purchase prices, and more people taking out classified ads. Newspapers, however, also remain popular in high-tech Japan. Its two largest papers, Yomiuri Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun, have daily circulations of about ten million and eight million respectively. Japan’s readership of paid dailies includes 92 percent of its population, second only to Iceland.

The news agency, AFP, explains this phenomenon: "newspapers are standard reading fare for Japanese ... on their ... train commutes to and from work, in a society that ascribes huge value to literacy and learning...young people collect information from the Internet, but its sources are often newspapers. If (this) situation continues ..., newspapers won't disappear. Also, Japanese news websites remain relatively sparse, which means newspapers face less of a threat from the digital realm."

One journalist, noting that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has ceased to exist as print newspaper, observed:

"If we lose local newsrooms, we lose the watchdog power of the media. The most disheartening part of seeing the physical Seattle P-I close is that only 20 of its reporters went to the website. Not only is that a lot of lost jobs, but that represents a lot of important news contacts lost. That represents a lot of carefully cultivated sources gone. That represents a lot of shady, lazy, or dishonest politicians, corporations, and agencies that won't be watched as carefully as they used to be."

Globally, print still provides the vast majority of newspaper company revenues, with circulation alone accounting for half of sales. Newspaper publishing today generates over $200 billion in revenue world-wide; it remains a very significant industry. Independent news media have always been at the heart of society’s evolution and are a necessary foundation for all economic, cultural and educational development. Newspapers are a vital resource for maintaining a healthy democracy.

Androulla Vassiliou, Europe’s commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, declared last May that the role of European newspapers in shaping democratic and open societies is as important today as in the period of Napoleon. The French leader had famously declared, "Four hostile newspapers were to be feared more than a thousand bayonets."

The former editor of The Scotsman, Tim Luckhurst, sums up this reality well: "It is impossible to identify a society in which the scrutiny of a free and diverse newspaper press has not been vital to the development and success of representative democracy. They are so inextricably linked it is alarming to contemplate the possibility of one trying to function without the other". Who can disagree?

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.