It would be fair to say that the recent decades have not been kind to the newspaper industry.
The rot set in during the 70s and 80s' and was accelerated by the rise of the internet, which had the unfortunate side effect of winnowing newsrooms, with titles shuttered and countless P45s issued.
The finger of blame has often been pointed at large internet titans like Google, Facebook and Amazon, which hoover up an eye-wateringly large proportion of annual digital ad spending - 64 per cent between them in the US last year, according to eMarketeer.
Fighting back against those claims, Mountain View has commissioned an "independent study" from professional services firm Accenture, which attributes the decline in print media [PDF] to the rise of online classifieds platforms like eBay, as well as web-based real-estate tools like RightMove and Zoopla.
The study (ironically hosted on Amazon's iron) painted a grim picture of the traditional newspaper business. In Western Europe alone, print media revenues fell from €42.6bn in 2003 to €26.5bn 2019. Although every revenue stream experienced some degree of decline, the most precipitous drop was found in the formerly lucrative classifieds ads business, plunging from €9.9bn in the halcyon days of 2003, to just €2.6bn in 2019.
This fall accounts for 44 per cent of the total newspaper revenue decline. It also suggests that legacy publications have struggled to transition to the online classified business, with just €100m generated across every print paper in Western Europe. Instinctively, this makes some sense. Why would you go to your local rag to find overpriced properties to rent, when there are specialist sites instead?
The report acknowledges that newspapers, and the broader media segment, have experienced a steep decline in advertising revenues independent of the woes experienced in the classified business.
According to the Google commissioned report, between 2003 and 2019, the total advertising spend grew from €32.3bn to €112.2bn. During this period, the shares held by newspapers more than halved, falling to €10.8bn from €32.8bn. Magazines, print directories, and trade publications had a similarly grim time. Radio and television had a slightly better go of it. Although their respective shares of the advertising market contracted, the total spent on each category grew modestly.
During this period, internet advertising revenues exploded from just €2.2bn to €50.5bn. Predictably, search swallowed the largest proportion of this, taking home €18.3bn, with display advertising not far behind at €15.8bn.
Accenture study attempts to point to the few silver linings surrounding journalism’s threateningly grey cloud. Readership numbers in Western Europe, it noted, increased by 38 per cent during the time period.
What's ahead for news
It also highlighted a greater willingness for the public to pay for news, with the number of paid subscriptions increasing 307 per cent between 2013 and 2018, when it reached 31.5 million.
Although positive — and perhaps necessary — for the news industry, this isn't a good thing for democracy and the public discourse. With more and more high-quality sources of journalism lurking behind paywalls, experts have raised concerns that the remaining free content is largely, for lack of a better word, dross.
It also doesn't bode well for those hoping to access a diversity of opinions and perspectives. Whereas previously you could freely observe the left-right split on an issue by visiting the websites of The Telegraph and The Guardian, now you have to pay, at least in the case of the former.
Google has a vested interest in disputing the narrative that it’s the enemy of journalism. The company was spooked in February when Australia's Parliament passed the landmark News Media Bargaining Code, which requires these companies to share revenue with the publications it links to.
Australia's competition regulator had previously expressed concerns that social and search giants hold a disproportionate share of the country's advertising market. It claimed that for every A$100 spent by advertisers in 2018, A$49 and A$24 went to Google and Facebook respectively.
Google vehemently opposed this bill, even threatening to leave the Aussie market entirely. This later turned out to be an empty threat, with the company agreeing to pay Nine Entertainment and Seven West Media fees worth an estimated A$60m.
Facebook similarly caved, but not before temporarily blocking the sharing of all news media content on the site for Australia-based users.
Nonetheless, Google likely fears legislators in other territories may be tempted to follow the example of Canberra, and launch a crackdown of their own. By reframing the discussion surrounding legacy print media to the issue of classified ads and paywalls, the search behemoth is effectively trying to pass the buck to smaller outfits like Zoopla. ®