"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"No one under 35 regularly purchases a hard copy newspaper"
As The Apple Daily hangs on by a thread here in Hong Kong, the media scene is evolving rapidly. Some of the trends mirror those seen worldwide; other changes arise from the period of civil unrest and fall-out from Covid-19. A perfect storm in many ways.
Across the globe, newspapers continue their relentless decline in circulation as the Internet eats away at their customer base. In the UK, former titans of circulation wars are looking battered and worn out.
For example, The Sun once had a daily print run of four million copies with weekly profits of £4- million. Today, the paper prints 500,000 with losses mounting towards £200 million. Owner Rupert Murdoch has declared the paper worthless in part due to payouts for phone hacking and other criminality. Some pundits believe that once Samantha Fox declared herself a lesbian, The Sun was doomed.
The Apple Daily had a circulation of around 400,000 in 1997 and is now down at 70,000. That decline was well underway before its current troubles. Likewise, The South China Morning Post, at one time the most profitable newspaper in the world, saw its profit decline since peaking in 1997 at HK$805 million. It is now adopting a paywall approach for the online version.
And the future for many legacy news outlets is looking bleak unless they adapt with business models that appeal to the young. How exactly you do that is not clear. All this brings home a stark point made by a journalist friend; newspapers are there to make money. If you don’t make money, you fail.
TV news channels are seeing similar impacts as the young aren't tuning in. As one commentator observed, "Broadcast TV is so dead that young people don't even recognise the corpse." The same applies to print media because no one under 35 regularly purchases a hard-copy newspaper.
For many legacy media organisations such as the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, and the rest of the corporate entities, is the writing is on the wall? In a recent debate, these organisations attracted the remark 'zombies walking towards to their demise'. That's a tad overblown but indicative of the challenges they face.
The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 provides a comprehensive and thought-provoking insight into the seismic shifts jolting the news media world. The changes identified are profound.
Until Covid-19 arrived, people proved unwilling to pay for online news. An uptick in subscriptions occurred in 2020, although it is unclear if this is sustainable. There is evidence that subscription fatigue soon creeps in, with people dropping out after a period. That, in turn, can drive online news outlets to adopt click-bait tactics. These involve increasingly sensational headlines that bear no resemblance to the facts.
Also, people are spending less time on Facebook, opting for Apps with high levels of privacy. WhatsApp is an example. Concern about misinformation and disinformation remains high despite efforts by platforms and publishers to build public confidence.
In the UK, trust in the media has fallen 20% since 2015 and shows no signs of levelling out. While in Hong Kong in 2019 alone, confidence in the press fell by 16%. Undoubtedly coverage of the protests was a factor as all sides questioned the validity of stories presented.
Here, Now TV news enjoys the top spot for trust, followed by RTHK news. It's interesting to note that while the Apple Daily enjoys wide circulation, the public rates it low on trustworthiness. Although, it did hold officials feet to the fire most of the time — something that’s needed — it also went overboard with inflated stories. Meanwhile, worldwide only 38% of people trust the news outlets most of the time.
The Reuters study makes a couple of things clear. First, the use of the smartphone to access news continues to grow in importance. Some 66% of people now use the device to follow the news. Plus, there exists a distinct preference for visual messages rather than the written word. Hence, video podcasts and audio are gaining in popularity.
For me, political debates on legacy TV channels such as CNN, Fox, the BBC and Channel 4 have become unedifying exercises in point-scoring without exploring issues. These debates are staged, with some aimed at ambushing one party or another. Activist journalists as moderators often attempt to score points instead of listening and examining the issues. Without a doubt, the best example is the Cathy Newman interview of Professor Jordan Peterson in 2018.
Newman suffered cognitive dissonance because she wasn't listening to Peterson's sensible moderate replies to her loaded questions. Instead, she ploughed on with her agenda. Newman soon found herself confronted with truths that exposed her worldview's falsehood. She then stalled and struggled to recover. Seen over 30 million times on YouTube, the interview generated many memes, my favourite being above.
Hence, you can see why the quality of debate has been eroded when activist journalists brings their bias to the game.
On a more positive note, what the Internet taketh away, it giveth back. Because the legacy media outlets no longer have a monopoly or much control over the message, other people fill the niche. In particular, the internet-based, long-form interviews that allow participants to explore issues and develop ideas while debating in a non-judgmental way prove popular. Joe Rogan has made a great success of this format. Other examples are Triggernometry and the work done by Jordan Peterson. There are many such channels.
It suggests that a market exists for honest and open debate, although it is not clear that the legacy media can meet that demand given inherent bias.
The Reuters research also found that more people say they actively avoid the news. In the UK that figure has risen 32% in the past two years ago. Data suggests that boredom, anger and sadness over Brexit drove that avoidance. Besides, people say they avoid the news because it harms their mood or they feel powerless to change events.
That's a sentiment many of us recognise. Except, as Jordan Peterson and Marian Tupy discuss here, things as far from the pending apocalypse portrayed in the mainstream media. In truth, in the long term, we are doing pretty well on most fronts. Listen and learn.
(Addendum: The Apple Daily ran its last print on 24 June 2021. It shut down all it’s Hong Kong operations.)
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.