[OUTLOOK]Testing time for newspapers

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[OUTLOOK]Testing time for newspapers

April 7 is Newspaper Day. Everyone working in the newspaper industry celebrates this day. Nevertheless, we can barely feel a festive mood.
For several years in a row, the number of newspaper subscriptions has been drastically decreasing, and the crisis of the newspaper industry is aggravating as new media outlets such as the Internet emerge. The regular subscription rate of households in Korea has dropped from 65 percent in 1998 to 40 percent today. Developed nations such as the United States are not exceptions in the decline in newspaper subscriptions.
American journalism professor Philip Meyer presented a grim outlook that if the number of reader subscriptions continues to decrease at the current rate, newspapers would become extinct by the first quarter of 2043.
In retrospect, Korea has come this far despite its constant crises and turbulence thanks to newspapers. A newspaper’s editors were enraged at the Protectorate Treaty of 1905 and awakened the national spirit during the Japanese colonial era with an editorial titled “Today we cry out in lamentation.” In addition, many newspapers did not surrender to the suppressions and appeasements of the military regimes, so as to protect freedom of speech.
Nevertheless, the very existence of newspapers, which are supposed to lead the public, is threatened today.
Some people insist that there won’t be any problem even if conventional newspapers are facing a crisis, because other media outlets such as Internet newspapers will replace that function. However, this is truly dangerous and simple single-track thinking.
Based on the editing techniques developed over several centuries, paper journalism concisely arranges the major agenda of a society on political, economic, social and cultural issues. The Internet can never substitute for newspapers in this function.
In a “Readership Profile Research” paper published by the Korean Association of Newspapers on April 6, newspapers topped television and the Internet as the best medium to learn what’s going on in the world and to obtain the information needed in our daily lives.
Then what would be the device to revive newspapers?
Simple. Just leave newspapers alone. It is time to let the market handle newspapers by applying no restrictions and no measures to boost them artificially. Some might say that it is too late already to get the best from the market function.
In that sense some clauses in the Newspaper Law are anachronistic. While developed countries have permitted cross-ownership among media companies as a part of deregulation policy since the 1980s, the Korean government remains firm in its position. At a time when technologies and industries are uniting closely, and broadcasting and wire services merging into one, it is discouraging to have government policy stubbornly obstructing that natural flow.
Clumsy measures aimed at boosting readership will also aggravate the already distorted newspaper market and temporarily extend the life of uncompetitive newspapers. While it is a problem that a few newspapers have too large a share of the market, another problem is that a city with a population of less than half a million has 10 newspapers, some of which are run with government subsidies.
The solution to the survival of newspapers has to be found internally. Internet portal sites have taken absolute dominance in the supply and circulation of news in cyber space, and newspapers are yet to come up with an analysis on why readers have abandoned conventional newspapers for the Internet and then to prepare countermeasures.
In order to survive in a market, you need to understand the order of the market. Newspapers now need to contemplate the value of the contents they produce. They should evaluate the costs and present a distinguished brand with high added value.
As long as newspapers continue to habitually produce the same contents in the same format merely using different titles, the last remaining readers will turn their backs on them.
The contents circulated through major portal sites such as Daum and Naver have evolved from the news provided by newspaper companies, and the newspapers need to understand that about half of the contents online are produced by the Internet users themselves. The existence of newspapers has played a role of checking and balancing the power of those Internet users.
However, if newspapers miss the timing to make efforts to reinvent themselves, the end of newspapers might come earlier than Professor Meyer had forecasted.

* The writer is a professor of mass-communications at ChungAng University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Sung Dong-kyu
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