The Long View: What comes next for newspapers?


What comes next for newspapers?

Recently I was surprised to see an ad for The New Yorker magazine in my Instagram feed. The surprising part was that the ad said it was a “special offer for the Philippines,” or something to that effect. Granted that these things are automated, it still suggests that the Philippines is a market and probably a bigger one than most people realize. Anecdotally speaking, it seems that never has subscribing to foreign content been more affordable or accessible: You can access The New York Times, the Washington Post, or The Economist, aside from digital content from Netflix and music from Spotify.

Just yesterday, former solicitor general Florin Hilbay tweeted that the “Grab & Uber story is about technology getting ahead of rules.” The same seems to apply to the media. When it comes to papers, the old ways and rules, such as limiting ownership to Filipinos, have become irrelevant in the sense that consumption is no longer location-dependent. The internet has abolished geography and the laws within a territory as limits on where people can obtain reading matter.

While newspapers and magazines are seeing their physical circulation drop, which leads to a kind of death spiral in terms of ad revenue, it doesn’t mean the market isn’t there. It has just moved elsewhere, in terms of where reading material is coming from. I once read an estimate of the Manila Times’ premartial law circulation being in the neighborhood of 200,000 copies daily, and I was struck by the corresponding fact (about 20 years ago, if memory serves me right) that at the time, the top three dailies boasted a circulation of about the same, each. Even back then, despite the population having grown exponentially, the print-reading public remained virtually unchanged.

I doubt if anyone can seriously claim anything beyond the numbers claimed for circulation 20 years ago. And yet, even if one grants that today’s millennials read less in print (or in general), the middle and even upper classes have grown — but they are taking their pesos elsewhere, and those pesos are paid in dollars to buy foreign content. Which includes, from time to time (and, apparently, enough, to satisfy Filipino subscribers), news and views on the Philippines. As for other news, there’s social media, which is supposedly free, and plentiful, but not paid for by subscriptions.

Whether in the past or today, media outfits displayed an institutional point of view, embedded in the institutional—reportorial, editorial—DNA of the paper, reflecting the times in which that paper was born, so to speak. The British comedy series “Yes, Minister” put it best:

Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

And you could basically create a similarly satirical list for our domestic papers. On a serious note, this leads to the new era that is about to open for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It was a paper born (and not reborn, unlike its early rivals) of the People Power Era, and for more than 30 years it has led, or was at the forefront of, public opinion for its readers. But that era is over, socially and politically. Politically, it ended with the arrest of Randy David on Edsa in 2006, though there was a brief Indian summer when 100,000 who rallied at the Luneta in reaction to the Inquirer’s stunning exposé of Janet Napoles some six years later. Socially (meaning the old assumptions of an informed and active citizenry), it ended with the passing of Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc in 2015.

The sale of the Inquirer opens up avenues of opportunity — and their challenges — for a paper in the digital age. The legacy of its outgoing owners is that this paper is still best positioned to undertake the challenge. The challenge for the new owner is whether the paper’s DNA will be allowed to survive, and seek new relevance in a new era.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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