The impact of digital disruption on traditional media is well acknowledged, but the devastating knock-on for journalism at a grassroots level is only finally registering on the political and social radar.
In barely a decade, more than 100 local and regional newspapers have closed in Australia and hundreds of journalists have been retrenched. The consequence is that we have become a country of untold stories, and the crisis threatens to tip into catastrophe.
One hope is that the Federal Government can stem the haemorraghing by adopting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendations from its Digital Platforms Inquiry. Most of the attention has been on the big media companies’ calls for greater regulation of the tech titans, Facebook and Google, who have raided revenue streams.
But one of the most dramatic consequences of media disruption has occurred right around us with little apparent community concern.
It was a bold enough statement for me to take note - and to recount now more than 20 years on.
While on a study tour of the US in 1996, I was talking to a senior media executive in Chicago who emphatically declared, without a hint of self doubt: “In 10 to 15 years, people will look at a newspaper and laugh”.
Sure enough it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but print still matters - not just to news folk but also to those in the communications business finessing their media ecosystems.
Year of reckoning for Facebook, Zuckerberg and social media: 4 insights for communication professionals
Have you noticed the world spinning a tad slower since the Facebook algorithm changes?
My feed has more personally relevant posts now and less noise from those outside my inner circle.
That was the intention when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that users’ posts and engagement would gain greater prominence at the expense of “public posts from businesses, brands and media”.
Facebook wants to favour content that prompts conversation and users’ active participation rather than stuff that just gets liked for the heck of it, including previously popular video. Sounds like less cats and more discussion touchpoints.
Already, time on Facebook has dropped marginally - and Zuck seems fine about that.
At times, my news feed resembled more an eclectic mish-mash of news and product information than a space for personal interactions with buddies.
But these changes have challenged the approach of many content marketers who had crafted strategies for clients around social media, especially Facebook, as well as media players who embraced distributing news via the platform. To be fair, though, users will be asked to indicate media they trust, which may improve the ranking of those outlets.
Big media has defined the public impression about print - closures, sell-outs, layoffs and dwindling profitability.
But in the world of small publishers it is actually a far more positive scene.
Community newspapers, which comprise the overwhelming number of newspapers across the world, tell a different story to the big media’s narrative of How Digital Killed Print.
The small newspaper market faces similar challenges from media fragmentation, but the strong appetite for hyperlocal news means the local paper continues to provide a great sales and marketing environment.
Take New Zealand.
When quarterly circulation figures next ping the email boxes of newspaper publishers, it is likely to be another sea of red.
I am old enough that I recall those days as an editor when you could experience the adrenalin rush of a circulation spike. No such thing today. In the past five years, moderate decline, say negative one to three per cent, is as good as it gets.
The romantic in us wants to believe newspaper decline will plateau. There is no evidence of this.
However, there are seven big mistakes that newspapers regularly make that are killing them. Avoid them, and you can make print stronger for longer.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.