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Will newspapers go the same way as stagecoaches?

By Clem Sunter

Stagecoaches as a means of travel between cities in England began in the 15th Century and reached their zenith from 1800 to 1830. Roads during this period were smoother and eventually became macadamised.

This made travel more comfortable and faster. Thus, allowing time for stops to change horses, average speeds for the journey went up to around 8 miles per hour. London to York was shortened to a three day adventure.

Then along came a blockbuster event: the establishment of railways in the 1840s which in terms of the Standard Bank slogan were simpler, better and faster- while being cheaper too.

This caused a slump in the stagecoach industry from which it never recovered other than as a romanticised legend in the hit movie Stagecoach made in 1939. It was John Ford's best production and starred a young John Wayne. There was no reversion to the mean for the stagecoach as you see in economic cycles and stock markets. The game was over for good and the only use for stagecoaches after 1840 was as sporting and recreational vehicles.

All those companies and individuals involved in providing goods and services to the industry closed up shop and moved on to other activities. Interestingly, in the US the spread of railroads- particularly in the West- only came later so the stagecoach industry continued to flourish into the 1860s. But even there the time came when the Wells Fargo coach was consigned to history.

People still wanted to be transported, but a better technical solution came along and that was it. In the same way, ships were replaced by airplanes so ocean vessels are now most often used for freight and cruises rather than ferrying passengers from one country to another. Both examples illustrate that change can be permanent if the innovation is strong enough to capture the public's imagination and more importantly significantly reduces the impact on their back pockets.

Enter the internet and social media

The same thing that happened to stagecoaches and passenger ships is now happening to the printed newspaper industry. Around the world, the story is one of declining circulation and a fall in advertising revenue leading to a serious retrenchment of reporters and other staff in the newsroom and elsewhere. Printing costs are being pared and overheads carefully scrutinised to eliminate what does not add value. This can all be traced to one simple fact: the public get their news virtually free of charge off the internet. In addition, they watch the major news channels and share news on social media platforms.

As an article by Hugo Rifkind in The Spectator put it the other day, imagine a situation where one newspaper grabbed all the scoops and published them ahead of its competitors. Such is Google. We have moved from a situation where news of victory or defeat in battle was conveyed by a rider on horseback to news distributed in papers by newsagents to news conveyed instantaneously by a click on the screen of a gadget on your desk or in your pocket.

Now you can also comment on the news and be read by others as well. You can also participate in events as they unfold on Twitter.

I know that many people in the world have no access to the internet or social media but news travels very quickly by word of mouth from those that do have access. Moreover, the latest statistics on how many smart phones are now owned or being used in Africa is stunning and points to the fact that the smart phone is becoming the principal means of communication and information on the continent. Lack of infrastructure has caused people to leap several generations of technology to satisfy their need of staying in touch.

Behind the electronic curtain

Obviously, media groups are adjusting to the new reality but a business model to ensure that a website can be truly profitable, as a newspaper once was, has yet to be developed. Some websites like The Guardian and this one permit unlimited visits for free while others restrict you to a limited number of downloads before you pay.

Nobody is quite sure of the best model. Having said that, some companies like Murdoch's BskyB and South Africa's Naspers have wholeheartedly embraced the internet and satellite TV. They have built completely new businesses which are more profitable than even newspapers were in their heyday.

On the other hand, the shake-up in the industry has already produced many victims around the world who, like the stagecoach companies, have packed up for ever. My own view is that newspapers can no longer compete on breaking news, but they can compete on commentary and entertainment.

For example, you do not buy The Economist to get the latest news, but to get an intelligent analysis of the news. Many Sunday newspapers are for browsing through and for picking out articles which in the normal course of events you would not consider putting time into reading. In other words, the newspaper can still be a fascinating and absorbing experience that you cannot obtain by looking at a screen.

I just hope the CEOs and heads of strategy at the various newspaper groups in South Africa understand how much their game is changing. Moreover, to co-exist with the internet, they are going to have to be foxes and carve out a new role for newspapers.

I have met so many courageous journalists in this country who play an essential part in exposing malpractice wherever it exists and who spread the word on the pockets of excellence that we must replicate to be a winning nation.

However, they need an environment which has a positive future and is not beset by commercial uncertainties and retrenchments. They need to travel in a modern vehicle capable of negotiating the challenging terrain ahead, not a stagecoach that can't.

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