Time for newspapers to go OPEC?

A man vends Monitor newspapers in Kampala two years ago. 
PHOTOS/ FILE  

What you need to know:

  • If the industry got together into an OPEC-like cartel and agreed starting on day X to pull all their content from social media and put it behind paywalls, the falling revenue would be halted. 

This is the third or fourth time in recent years that I’m writing about the crisis facing the newspaper industry.
I doubt that it will be my last, because I’m really concerned about the fate facing newspapers; not just for the obvious reason that I contribute to one, but as part of my broader interest in global business trends, consumer tastes, and evolving digital technology.
It has been eating at my heart to see the steady decline of newspaper circulation and the news media’s revenue in general since 2008.
Many reasons have been given before by me and others for this worrying trend.

Newspapers are not producing enough good content. Newspapers have a cover price that the market can’t afford. Newspapers have been made irrelevant by the rise of social media.
The explanations are endless, with the media industry mostly on the receiving end of the blame game.
I frequently visit websites not just of Ugandan origin, but British, American, Chinese, and various European media brands.
One gets to the website, reads this really thoughtful, rich, well-written article on fashion, technology, a major global new story or historical topic.
At the end of the 1,500-word article, there are no reader comments. I mean zero comments. Sometimes one or, at most, two comments.

If some Ugandan newspapers are to blame for poor quality content, what’s the explanation for world-class newspapers and magazines publishing really fine articles, but at the end of the articles there are no comments?
Does it mean they are no longer being read at all? How have we come to this?
Over the last four years or so, a thought has been lingering in my mind about the core reason for all this after I examined the global oil industry.
In September 1960, five major oil producers, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq came together to form a body called the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Over the decades, they were joined by Indonesia, Angola, Nigeria, Libya, the United Arab Emirates and others.
The purpose of OPEC was to bring together these petroleum-producing countries into a cartel by which they would agree on the production of oil and gas in carefully regulated quotas.
Without this working as a cartel, it would have been easy for them to flood the global market with oil, resulting in a glut and a drop in the price of the commodity below profitability.
Similarly, the global Internet revolution that got underway in the late 1990s has brought incredible connectivity and an over-abundance of information to the fingertips of billions of people, most of it for free.

Unfortunately, some of the biggest casualties of this over-abundance of information have been the industries for whom information is the product and source of revenue -- the music industry, the newspaper industry, in particular.
One of the arguments is that social media gives most people most of the information they need, so why buy a newspaper or watch TV?
Actually, when one spends any length of time on social media, it quickly becomes obvious that the bulk of content that engages the public the most on these social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook is stories published by mainstream newspapers.
If we were to go for a day or a week without a single newspaper publishing or TV station broadcasting news, social media would have little to talk about.

Yes, there would still be the usual gossiping and posting of graduation photos and selfies.
But society at large would be thrown into the dark when it comes to the public affairs and news discussions that tend to bring society together.
Apart from one or two celebrity scandals, on a typical day all year round, the top trending topics on the Internet, either on Google’s search or on the Twitter trending topics section, are always news topics.
And this is not just in Uganda, but worldwide too.
This, to me, shows that the news media is still the heart of society. It is still the most important source of meaningful content both on the general Internet and on social media.
In the United States and Western Europe, there has been a haphazard attempt to introduce digital paywalls on newspaper websites.

The results are success for a handful of papers like the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and most spectacularly for the New York Times in the United States, and the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, and the Financial Times in the United Kingdom.
Paywalls can’t work for the media industry in general when the amount of free news content available online still dwarfs the content behind paywalls by a factor of 2,500 to 1.
But if the newspaper and magazine industry got together into an OPEC-like cartel and agreed starting on day X to pull all their content from social media and put it behind paywalls on their websites, and, equally important, made it as easy to pay for access as it currently is to pay one’s water or electricity bill using even a basic mobile phone, at last the crisis of steeply falling newspaper revenue would be halted.
This, in my view, is the missing element in the newspaper crisis.
 

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