Newspapers in the digital age

By Artchil B. Fernandez

The demise of print media, particularly traditional newspapers is inevitable. This was the prognosis with the dawning of the internet and digital media in the late ’90s and early 2000s. In the same way, the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century revolutionized and transformed feudal society, and the advent of the digital world has radically altered modern society.

The dramatic impact of digital media on traditional newspapers is shown by the Pew Research Center report.  In 2000, “U.S. newspapers collectively had an average weekday (Monday-Friday) circulation of 55.8 million in the United States and an average Sunday circulation of 59.4 million” (Pew Research Center, 2021).  In 2020, Pew reported that US newspapers had an average weekday circulation of 24.3 million and an average Sunday circulation of 25.8 million, a huge 56 percent drop.

The decline is serious if the 1990 Pew data is considered. In 1990, the weekday newspaper circulation in the US was 63.2 million and for Sunday newspapers it was 62.6 million according to Pew. Data, it appears, support the earlier diagnosis.

Despite the forecast of newspapers’ passing, the newsstands are still around.  While digital media significantly affected traditional newspapers, it did not erase its existence.  Newspapers are still around and the early drumroll for newspapers’ death is premature.  Surprisingly, a number of newspapers survived the digital onslaught.

The emergence of content producers, vloggers, and similar digital competitors did not diminish the importance of newspapers. The World Association of News Publishers 2020-2021 outlook report reveals traditional newspapers remain the most trusted source by the public in terms of advertisements. WAN-IFRA / SynoInt Consumer Ad Trust conducted a global survey in 2020 involving 40,000 respondents in 40 countries on the most trusted media to consume advertising. Printed newspapers top the list with 27 percent saying it is the most trusted media followed by local newspapers with 26.22 percent. Commercial TV channel is third with 24.08 percent and fourth is commercial radio station with 23.91 percent.

Printed magazine is trusted by 22.82 percent while online newspaper websites/apps and movies at cinemas had 21.09 percent and 17.97 percent respectively in the WAN-IFRA / SynoInt Consumer Ad Trust survey. Search engines on the other hand were trusted by 12.9 percent and online videos/video clips had 4.82 percent.  Social media sites got a measly 4.14 percent.

Adaptation and innovation enabled newspapers to survive the digital age. Most newspapers also migrated online while maintaining their printed edition. Newspapers entered the digital world with electronic copies of the paper and created their own websites. The digital transformation of many newspapers allowed them not only to compete but also to endure the digital disruption in the new technological environment.

Bloggers, vloggers, TikTokers, and similar social media platforms emerged in the digital age not only competing with newspapers as sources of information but also threatening to ease out printed newspapers in the market. These social media entities seem to render newspapers irrelevant as people want to consume information that caters to their biases and prejudices. However, the dark side of social media is bared naked by these digital platforms which spew disinformation, misinformation, lies, and falsehoods. In most instances, these digital platforms are tools of confusion and division, sowing hate and negativity. The digital space is polluted by the toxicity of these social media platforms.

With the dark side of social media exposed, traditional media, especially printed newspapers are gaining importance and the crucial need for them is increasing. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021 surveyed people from six continents and 46 markets around the world and found that trust in news has grown by six percent as people seek accurate and reliable sources. Trust in traditional media, printed newspapers included is not only increasing but growing with the public craving for unbiased and correct news.

In the US, a 2023 national survey of 5,000 adults revealed that “local newspapers are the most relied on and trusted media source of original reporting: more than television and radio, and significantly more than social media” (Ridings, 2023).  The same report said that “trust in local newspapers extends across age groups and demographics, as adults of all segments recognize the value of reliable local reporting that newspapers deliver.”

Why traditional media especially printed newspapers are trusted more than social media?  The answer is simple. Traditional media like printed newspapers are governed by a code of conduct and ethics. Journalists working in traditional media are mandated and required to follow the code of ethics of the profession.

Social media platforms, on the other hand, are not bound by any rules, anything goes in them. There is no accountability, no sense of responsibility, no fact-checking on social media. Information spawned by bloggers, vloggers, TikTokers and similar platforms are suspect since they are not governed by any rules of right conduct.

It is in the area of accountability and a sense of responsibility that printed newspapers have the advantage over social media platforms. Despite the popularity of post-modern thinking, a significant portion of the public are still suckers for objectivity, accurate data and information, and the facts – truth in short. Notwithstanding its weaknesses, traditional media like printed newspapers remain credible compared to social media platforms.

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in the age of digital is another challenge confronting printed newspapers. Pundits in a similar vein (when the internet came) are again projecting AI will render printed media irrelevant and many journalists jobless.

Like in the past, this is again another premature projection. AI like ChatGPT may appear smart and cheeky and can produce glossy outputs but it is still a computer software or program which cannot go beyond its algorithm. For this reason, it is imperfect and prone to “hallucinations.” Hallucinations are fabricated outputs.

ChatGPT can write superb articles and can mimic human writing but when it comes to column writing for example it can never replace a human column writer. Column writing requires three things that AI like ChatGPT does not and cannot possess. These are critical thinking, creativity, and passion. AI is not capable of self-reflection and outside its program, AI cannot do anything.

Humans can think outside the box, human imagination is infinite. Unlike AI, humans have passion which is induced by emotions. AI like ChatGPT can produce a sharp logical analysis of an issue after scouring the internet for information and putting them together but it cannot write an article loaded with passion.  Words constructed by AI are stale, devoid of emotions and cannot drip with anger, fear, grief, joy, sadness, happiness, anxiety, pleasure, and whatever feelings only humans can express. It is for this reason that reading an article written by humans is a joy.

In the digital age, printed newspapers are here to stay.  Challenges are still huge for traditional media in the age of AI and cyberspace in general.  However, the need for traditional media, especially print newspapers is stronger than before with the advent of the post-truth era.  Newspapers still hold the line for facts, true and accurate information, and the truth as a whole.

Daily Guardian is marking its 23rd anniversary this year. Its prospects remain bright and lustrous as it navigates the digital age.  In the post-truth world, local newspapers like the Daily Guardian are not only relevant but are needed more than ever by the public and the larger society.


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