In October 2010 I launched the now-infamous Newspaper Extinction Timeline, shown below.
It launched an immediate and enduring conversation, with the timeline discussed in newspapers and publications in over 30 countries in the first week after its launch. Over the years it has attracted some support, plenty of criticism, and hundreds of citations, including from senior figures such as Singapore Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Central Bank of Ireland Deputy Governor Sharon Donnery, and Havas Global Managing Director Dominique Delport.
Partly to respond to deep misunderstandings of the timeline, over the years I have many times provided deeper explanations of the timeline, including immediately after its launch. I have also long intended to create an updated timeline, adjusting the dates based on new developments since the timeline’s launch, however I have never managed to fit it in among my many projects.
However it is now the end of 2017, the year when I forecast newspapers would become insignificant in the US. It is time to review the timeline in detail, including why it was created, how accurate or inaccurate it was, and what the global news industry needs to be doing now.
The nature of the timeline
Most of the commentators and critics of the timeline seemed to have failed to read the explanatory notes included in page 2 of the original full timeline document.
“This schedule for newspaper extinction shows best estimates given current trends. The timeline is intended to highlight the diversity of global media markets and stimulate useful strategic conversations.
Newspapers in their current form becoming insignificant is not the same as the death of news-on-paper, which will continue in a variety of forms.
Ways that newspaper publishers of today will succeed in the transition beyond “newspapers in their current form” include transitioning to other channels, providing personalized news-on-paper, and tapping niche markets.”
Two key points here:
- The timeline is about “newspapers in their current form”, in 2010 primarily meaning news-on-paper – news supplied on printed paper. It is NOT about news or news organizations, many of which have been successfully transitioning to delivering news in a multitude of formats other than paper.
- Very importantly, it was intended to “stimulate useful strategic conversations”.
In my opening keynote on Creating the Future of News at International News Media Association World Congress 2015 in New York I provided further context on the extinction timeline, as well as addressing the far more important issue of how we can create a prosperous future for news.
Anyone familiar with my work knows that I often say I do not believe in predictions. I am quoted in an Australian Financial Review article Futurist Ross Dawson: predictions can mislead saying:
Forecasts and predictions make Ross Dawson uncomfortable, but not for the reasons you think.
“A prediction can have negative value, by misleading people, by taking away all the uncertainties and the possibilities,” he says.
Rather than giving people the illusion of certainty, he believes the role of the futurist is to help people to think more effectively about the future.
I have also very clearly given my opinion of predictions:
“Almost all forecasts will turn out to be wrong. The future is unpredictable.”
The intent of the Newspaper Extinction Timeline
If that is how I feel about predictions, why did I make specific forecasts on the demise of news-on-paper?
The short answer is: to provoke strategic thought and action.
In 2010 I still saw enormous complacency among newspaper organizations and executives. There were a good number of news organizations that were responding in a concerted fashion to a changing world and shifting their resources to building value in new channels.
I think it is safe to say there were many more that were not taking sufficient action given the extent of the changes that were already underway, and are now regretting that they were so slow to shift their business models.
The Newspaper Extinction Timeline, by providing specific predictions, was intended to make executives think hard about the future of their industry and business, and hopefully to make them respond in ways that would create a more successful future for their organizations.
Earl Wilkinson, Executive Director and CEO of the International News Media Association (INMA), understood that perfectly, writing in a blog post (since deleted but quoted on my blog and in The Guardian)
What I like about Dawson’s nudge is that it reminds us that the clock is ticking. We can’t work fast enough at the corporate level or the industry level to develop digital platforms that connect with readers and advertisers. We can’t work fast enough to build multi-media companies where print, online, mobile, iPad and others each play to their strengths and interact. Just as we were warned in the 1990s that classified advertising could disappear and we need to prepare for that, we need to be preparing today for an all-digital future — whether that comes in 2025, 2050, 2100, or some year beyond the reach of our great-grandchildren.
Here’s an interesting exercise for your management team: pick the date Dawson says your country’s newspapers will be “insignificant” and work backward. What would you need to do between today and that date to transform your business model and generate enough revenue to preserve today’s level of journalism at a sufficiently profitable level? We may all make similar choices, but my guess is the sense of urgency is more intense in the United States than India.
If a few dates assigned to something we’re already focused on contribute 1% additional urgency to our industry’s transformation from print to multi-media and the structure of our news ecology — with print still playing a part, even if “insignificant” — then we can thank Ross Dawson for his contribution.
I have been told about many instances in which the Newspaper Extinction Timeline has been used to help bring a sense of urgency to media boards and executives when the necessity of rapid change has not been yet recognized.
However this can cut both ways. I have been told that in one South African media conglomerate the Timeline was used to support complacency because the date given for Metro South Africa seemed very far away at 2037.
Factoring in new data
In the years following the release of the timeline I was often asked whether I had updated the timeline since its launch.
My thinking on the likely dates had certainly shifted from soon after the launch based on new data, however I never had time to do a comprehensive review of the entire timeline, and I didn’t want to make isolated changes.
However from quite soon after the Timeline’s launch two things became clear:
1. The earliest dates were too aggressive.
Seen from 2010, the forecasts of 2017 for the US, 2019 for UK and Ireland, and Canada and Norway in 2020 were certainly provocative and intended to be so. The prediction for the US is now demonstrably wrong. At his point we can fairly safely say that the forecasts for the other countries early on the list will be wrong.
However the pace of decline in news-on-paper in the countries next on the list – Finland, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Denmark – suggests that those dates might still prove not to be too early.
2. Many of the later dates were considerably too optimistic (for newspapers).
Many of the dynamics in highly developed markets affecting the news industry are rapidly flowing through to developing markets. Seven years ago sustained newspaper growth in China and India seemed inevitable for the foreseeable future. However newspaper advertising in China is already falling rapidly – reportedly down 40% last year alone – as mobile usage explodes and the outlook for India may not be as rosy as suggested by headline figures.
My keynote at Arab Media Forum in 2014 was widely reported for my comments that my forecasts for the extinction of newspapers in UAE and Saudi Arabia should be revised earlier from the timeline dates of 2028 ad 2034 respectively, given the extraordinary growth of social media and mobile news in the region in the previous few years.
On various visits to countries such as Russia, India, China, and Colombia for speaking engagements I saw clear evidence that the death of news-on-paper will likely come far earlier than I anticipated in the timeline.
Wrong on US
Given it’s 2017 it is time to review the timeline’s accuracy on the state of newspapers in the US, the first country on the list.
In short, I fully acknowledge that my prediction that news-on-paper would become “irrelevant” (defined as less than 2.5% of total advertising revenue) in the US in 2017 was definitely wrong, as I have been pointedly told. But what is the actual state of the industry today?
It is very difficult to get good data on the state of the newspaper industry in the US, not least since the Newspaper Association of America (now the News Media Alliance) in 2013 stopped publishing its previously excellent industry data after 26 consecutive quarters of revenue declines.
In addition many newspaper companies globally have been extremely opaque in their financial reports, making it very difficult to assess the state of their newspapers as distinct from their digital properties.
In particular the vast majority of “newspaper circulation” figures available include both print and digital editions so tell us next to nothing about the state of news-on-paper.
See our Decline of News-on-paper: United States data page, where we have compiled the most relevant data we could source.
Early next year we intend to add pages to examine the state of news-on-paper in other countries, beginning with UK, Canada and Australia. Please contact us if you can point us to or provide any more recent data that gives an accurate view of the picture today.
Where news-on-paper will survive (longer)
There is no doubt that in many countries news-on-paper as we usually think about it is severely endangered or rapidly getting there.
However there are a number of domains in which news-on-paper may survive significantly longer than your traditional city newspaper.
Global “newspapers of record”
There are a handful of newspapers that garner global audiences as they are considered to be a reference to news in politics or business. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times and The Economist (if you agree with its self-description as a newspaper) all fit this category.
Le Monde, El País, Nikkei, The Times of India, Folha de S.Paolo and a handful of other publications are reference points globally in their language domains, so are highly advantaged relative to other publications, however cannot attract the same global audience as English-language publications.
All of these publications have been very actively transitioning to digital publication and revenue models, most with substantial success. However their position as reference publications will enable them to continue to monetize print for considerably longer than other news publications that are not in the same position. The situation of the vast majority of newspapers is not comparable to these giants.
Newspapers are consumed very differently on weekdays and weekends. On weekdays they are used primarily a source of daily news, a domain where computers and mobile devices are proving to be superior delivery platforms to paper.
However weekend newspapers are consumed in a more leisurely fashion, not while commuting or in an office, with timeliness not imperative, making paper a good delivery mechanism.
Many newspapers around the world have long offered weekend-only subscriptions, an increasing number are no longer publishing every week day. So far only a handful have shifted to weekend-only production, but the shift is likely to accelerate dramatically in coming years. The traditional daily newspaper will die in many cities. The remaining weekend editions will be more akin to a weekly magazine, more focused on commentary and lifestyle than news per se.
Free commuter papers
Since Metro was successfully launched in Stockholm in 1995 and subsequently in many other European cities the number of free newspapers for commuters has exploded globally as other news organizations followed suit, with some paid newspapers going free, such as London Evening Standard in 2009.
The economics of free newspapers continues to erode, not least with a large proportion of commuters preferring to use their mobiles for news and entertainment over picking up and discarding a newspaper. Over the last years many free papers, such as News Corp’s London Paper and mX, have closed. However free newspapers are likely to continue to exist for the foreseeable future, especially in developing economies.
Small community newspapers that focus on local news and identities, usually on a weekly publication schedule, are highly challenged but in some cases still have a decent runway ahead. The news is not time-sensitive and the highly defined audiences are attractive to local advertisers. Many small community newspapers are closing, however some will survive longer than city newspapers.
Revising the timeline
The Newspaper Extinction Timeline has proven to be – at least partly – wrong. So should it be revised based on the new information that has emerged since its launch?
Our intention is to revise the timeline next year if we believe doing so will create value for the industry. If we proceed we will draw on far broader input than was used for the first edition, inviting readers of this publication to share insights and perspectives so we can better estimate the pace of erosion of news-on-paper.
Creating the future of news
What frustrated me the most in the response to the Newspaper Extinction Timeline was that most people missed the point entirely.
In the big picture it is not that important if news-on-paper effectively dies. What IS critically important is that we work to create a prosperous future of news and the news industry, using whatever media and channels are the best to deliver news, engage audiences, and generate sustaining revenue.
In a rapidly changing world in which we are literally shaping the future of humanity, I believe there is no more important industry in the world than news. Individually and collectively we need to be well-enough informed to make the decisions that will create a better world tomorrow.
I also believe that it is possible, though certainly not inevitable, that we can create a positive, prosperous future of news.
In Four Scenarios to Guide Pathways to a Prosperous Future of the News Industry I describe alternative pathways for the future of news, as a tool for understanding our own beliefs about what is and isn’t possible.
We have to believe that the ‘News-powered progress’ scenario which is characterized by high-quality news and strong industry prosperity is possible in order to create it. If we don’t believe it’s possible it will never happen.
However if we do believe that it is possible somehow, the necessary next step is to work out how best to do it, by navigating the possible paths from where we are today to a prosperous future of news.