What has three decades of documenting the world’s news media taught us? Thirty years ago, when the first edition of World Press Trends was published, the world was a very different place. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet, the first GPS (Global Positioning System) went up, the Berlin Wall came down and South Africa’s President FW de Klerk met with Nelson Mandela to discuss his release from prison after 27 years. What progress! On the darker side, we know of the tragic deaths that year of working journalists in Colombia, Turkey, Sudan and Romania, amongst others, though it would be another decade before Reporters Without Borders (RWB) started systematically keeping that gruesome score.
Still, in most markets across the world, newspaper publishers had a solid grip on the babble of public and commercial information and, in turn, cash from advertising, copy sales and subscriptions flowed like ink. Our role as the Fourth Estate of Democracy was largely undisputed, particularly as broadcasting in many countries remained firmly in state hands.
It would be another five years before the first blog emerged on Links.net and seven years before the term “weblog” was coined. By 1989, The New York Times had already earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records with a 1,612-page Sunday edition that tipped the scales at about 5.5kg (12 lbs). By comparison, the edition on Sunday, July 28th this year was 192 pages and weighed about a third of that – 1.8kg (4 lbs). While its print edition has shrunk in scale, the company’s ambitions and fortunes haven’t.
At the end of the first quarter of 2019, the total number of print and digital paid subscriptions topped 4.5 million sending their shares soaring to a 13-year high. Chief Executive Mark Thompson remains optimistic there is more growth ahead. In a statement, he announced ambitious internal targets to earn $800 million in digital revenues by 2020 – equal to almost half of their total revenues in 20182 – and to reach 10 million subscribers by 20253. While the story of The New York Times is not universal amongst traditional news publishers, 2 As reported by Nasdaq: https://www.nasdaq.com/symbol/nyt/financials?query=income-statement 3 As reported by Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-06/new-york-times-sets-goalof-10-million-subscribers-by-2025. WAN-IFRA REPORT 8 World Press Trends 2019 WORLD PRESS TRENDS 2019 it’s not unique. On every continent and in every market context, innovating news publishers are finding ways to adapt and thrive in the face of changing consumer behaviour and competition that is driven, in large measure, by the rapid changes and challenges of digital technology. But there’s no denying the facts.
The decade since the Global Recession has been tough for everyone involved in the business of publishing independent, fact-based news – professionally and personally. Challenges to the traditional advertising model of publishers have seen profits fall, often taking jobs and even entire titles with them. In 1989, our records show that The New York Times was amongst 1,626 daily newspapers in the USA.
By 2019, one out of every five (20%) had closed, leaving just 1,283 daily newspapers4 serving a population that had grown more than 40% during the same period. But nowhere has the toll been felt more harshly than on the reporting frontline. The past decade has been the most deadly on record for journalists, according to RWB. Last year saw 84 journalists killed and 348 imprisoned. Halfway into 2019, the outlook remains grim.
Already 26 people working in journalism are dead and 401 imprisoned. This marked rise in hostility towards the press is a stark reminder of the fragility of our freedom, even in mature democracies. The pursuit of truth remains a threat to populist politicians, corrupt officials, criminal cabals and extremist groups worldwide.
That is why perhaps the metrics that matter most are those we quantify for the first time this year – the role a free press plays in democracy, society and the economy. The statistical evidence we present here is as plain as it is powerful.
We drew on data from across a wide range of widely respected sources – from the World Bank, United Nations, OECD5 and more – to show that, through correlational analysis, there is no shadow of a doubt: when and where press freedom flourishes, so do indicators of different aspects of a functioning democracy like the control of corruption, the rule of law, the electoral integrity. The higher the press freedom, the higher the social well-being indicators like gender equality, education levels, and overall human development.
The higher the press freedom, the higher economic indicators like the Gross National Income per capita, direct foreign investment, and trade across borders. We offer further evidence that the light a free press shines counters some of societies’ most pressing concerns.
The higher the press freedom, the lower the percentage of 4 Data from the US News Deserts project at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill at: https://www.usnewsdeserts.com Note that the News Media Alliance (NMA) in the USA, formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), has not published detailed metrics since 2014. Since then, the World Press Trends team have drawn on insights provided by independent public and private researchers, including PwC, Zenith, the News Deserts project and the Pew Research Centre.
5 Sources include the World Bank, World Justice Project, Freedom House, the Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD), the United Nations Development Programme and Harvard University Political Integrity Index. WAN-IFRA REPORT 9 World Press Trends 2019 WORLD PRESS TRENDS 2019 spoiled votes in elections, the lower the social inequality and the lower the poverty levels. It’s for those reasons, and many others we report on here, that the robustness of a free, independent news media industry matters to everyone, inside and outside of the industry6 .
Of course, it’s not just vital for the press to be free, but also to be trustworthy. And for that, it’s critical the press shoulders the responsibilities of freedom. That we help build vigorous democracies by loudly encouraging opposition voices and being role models of tolerance ourselves.
That we support economic growth by reporting accurately to inform sound business decisions and to keeping state and commercial actors to account. That we encourage vibrant communities to thrive by advocating for diversity, equality and cohesion.
There is certainly more to be done to earn the trust of our communities. As WAN-IFRA’s outgoing president Michael Golden of The New York Times said, “Journalists and the press must work harder to reflect the experience, the fears and the hopes of society. While economies are growing, the benefit is not evenly shared. Journalists must do a better job of reflecting the situation of all levels of society. Many are working to do that. We can all improve.” And, as this year’s report clearly shows, there are also improvements needed to ensure our important industry remains sustainable. Whatever else may be true in the pursuit of economic resilience, the building blocks of successful news publishing endures across all contexts, according to Sonny Swe.
In 2000 Swe co-founded The Myanmar Times, the country’s first privately-owned, English-language paper with the strapline ‘Heartbeat of the Nation.’ He soon fell foul of the country’s strict censorship laws and was imprisoned for eight years.
Throughout, the digital and print newspaper continued publishing in English and Myanmar. Freed in 2013, Swe remains optimistic about the future of the company, which has diversified its revenue streams to include a marketing agency.
When recently asked, ‘What is your formula for creating a sustainable business model for news?’, he answered without hesitation: Build a great team + create great content = make money. That other publishers worldwide have also mastered those fundamentals is underlined in this 30th edition of the World Press Trends that shows our $123 billion-industry served a growing number of least 640 million paying news users – and many, many millions more through free products.
Those audience numbers are expected to grow in the years ahead as forward-thinking publishers continue to innovate, deliver value to communities – and thrive.