Are News Publishers Chasing a Future that Doesn’t Exist?

Roger Fidler was used to being laughed at back in the 80s when he predicted the future of news.

“It was not quite like Roger had descended from another planet,” a colleague of his once told Washington Post report Michael Rosenwald, “but he was saying some things that were simply very hard to believe at the time.”

Rosenwald explains in a special report in the Columbia Journalism Review:

“In Fidler’s vision of the future, news and information were headed to the nascent internet, where stories would be instantly published from one computer to millions more, eliminating the need to operate an expensive press run by expensive workers. A tablet, he thought, was the perfect device to replace paper. Readers could click on boxes that revealed data or more information about a particular subject. Advertisers could produce immersive, interactive ads. And the tablet could be slipped into a briefcase or bag. Fidler was right, of course. Apple has sold several hundred million iPads, and more than a billion phones that serve much the same purpose.”

And yet, Fidler now believes he was wrong.

“I have come to realize that replicating print in a digital device is much more difficult than what anybody, including me, imagined,” he tells Rosenwald. And he’s not just talking about the challenge of replicating print news on a digital device, but of the very sustainability of publishing news online.

“The idea of interactive advertising has clearly not panned out, [Fidler] says. Readers are annoyed and distracted by it, so many block it with browser extensions,” Rosenwald writes. “He and others have observed that print offers a limited amount of ad space, which is infinite online, driving down ad prices and sending publishers racing around a hamster wheel. To make money, they need more content to advertise against. Some of this content is—how to put this?—lousy, giving readers another reason not to pay for news.”

Not only is the online news model basically unviable, but Fidler also wonders whether publishers have understated the importance of print.

“I have been wondering,” Fidler says, “whether we have completely underestimated the viability and usefulness of the print product.”

Rosenwald spoke to media researcher Iris Chyi of the University of Texas who believes publishers “have killed print, their core product, with all of their focus online.”

Chyi analyzed industry data and found some telling points about engagement and reach, which were both far better in print. More telling, she found that even among younger readers, print was the preferred medium.

“Pew reports that print-only is still the most common way of reading news, with more than half of readers last year opting for ink on their hands every day. The percentage who only read news via a computer? Five percent in 2014…and in 2015? Also 5 percent,” Rosenwald reports.

“Newspapers still get the vast majority of their revenue from print. Meanwhile, a growing number of online readers use ad blockers, less than 10 percent of readers are willing to pay for more content online, and the digital advertising business stinks—and not just because of the oversupply of ad space,” Rosenwald notes.

Have publishers been neglectful of their primary product, pouring all their resources into “the next big thing” before that thing is actually viable? Many – Fidler, Chyi and Rosenwald among them – say yes.

Meanwhile publishers, including one interviewed by Chyi, as asking “what if we just didn’t do digital?” Can they get back to publishing quality content worthy of the reader’s time and money? That’s the million dollar question.