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Are We Facing The Death Of The Mainstream UK Press?

26/10/2016 16:29

The other week I interviewed an old friend, Stig Abell, Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and LBC radio host, for my Media Focus podcast. During our chat he mentioned the rise of the niche publication, alongside the demise of the mainstream newspaper, and this got me thinking.

We all know that the UK press are struggling. But what, and who, is really driving this movement away from the mainstream media? I've explored these issues before, looking at content creation, the rise of Facebook news and other online platforms. But over the last few months I've come to believe that we're on the edge of a huge change, one that is not driven by media corporations but by consumers.

The most recent and comprehensive report on the media was published by the Pew Research Center in June this year. Entitled The State of The News Media 2016, it only covers the US media but I think it's a fair reflection of the UK too. In the report, alongside all the expected gloom for newspapers - profits and circulation down, cuts and closures up - there are a few unusual findings:

People are getting bored with online news sites

First, while desktop and mobile traffic to the US top-50 online news websites rose overall, the number of minutes spent on these website by people using a smartphone actually fell for 34 of them.

This might seem like small beer. An anomaly even. But mobile traffic to news sites makes up the largest proportion of visits by quite a large margin. So you could argue that rather than a blip this is actually a very big warning sign: people are getting bored more quickly with online news sites.

But why are they getting bored? It could be that the mainstream media is turning people off; alienating them with dumbed-down highly politicised articles; pinning their colours to Left or Right and producing evermore hysterical and aggressive content. Or maybe it's just easier to read comments or headlines on Goole News, Twitter or Facebook, or on your favourite blog rather than visiting a news site.

My personal favourite reason is that the need to advertise and create media-rich content means that when you click a link on Twitter you're faced with pop-ups you can't get rid of, videos that won't load, screens that jump around because they're not properly coded for mobile, and in the end you just give up and can out. But who really knows why people aren't staying on news sites?

People love niche news magazines

While people are slowly getting bored with online newspapers, they're starting to fall in love with news magazines, and they're prepared to pay for this love affair. So much so in fact that this sector is actually growing in the US, a remarkable feat in the context of the media landscape today.

According to the report: 'Sales of digital copies of single issues [news magazines] increased by an average of 30% in 2015 to more than 12,000 average sales per title. As a result, digital single copy sales now account for nearly three-in-ten of all news magazine single copy sales'.

Why do people love niche news media? Possibly because they want to read something that's straight; something that isn't all sound and fury, is slightly longer form, is a calm reflection of their own views but has the space to develop ideas. Maybe it's just that they want to learn more about a subject so that they can win more battles on Twitter?

But they love news channels even more

In the US, TV news is a fast-growing sector, and it is by far the most popular way to consume news. And these statistics are mirrored in the UK, although the growth is, at present, slower.
According to Deloitte, 56% of 35-44 year olds in the UK get their news fix from the TV, rising to 75% for the 55+ age range; and OFCOM research shows that television is by far the most-used platform for news, with 67% of UK adults in 2015 saying they use TV as a source of news.

So who is going to win this media war?

If we simplify the whole argument we're left with the following: when all is said and done, we'd actually prefer to just watch the news on the telly, delivered by professional broadcasters; we are getting bored with online newspapers, and we want the kind of in-depth and thoughtful insight provided by niche publications. If this is true then what does that mean for the future of media consumption?

The one thing that's becoming clearer is that the media organisations are not driving change; they are not leading the way anymore - they're playing catch-up. And 'catch-up' is possibly exactly where we're going to be in 10 years' time. The massive rise in VOD and steaming means that people can now watch whatever they want, wherever they want. And boy, do they love that! Being in control of content - there's no bigger high!

So if I had to predict, I'd say we're looking at a future with two silos. First, mainstream news broadcasts, watched on any smart device and streaming TV inside and outside the home, delivered by a growing number of established and new, yet-to-be-launched broadcasters. Delivering the hard-hitting, on-the-spot news we all want.

And the other silo will be niche news publications with increasing numbers of high-profile guest contributors who have deserted the mainstream press to reach a wider, more considered audience. As for the mainstream national press; the newspapers? I'm beginning to think that in 20 years' time they just might not exist.

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