The future of the Newspaper | Sunday Observer

The future of the Newspaper

5 February, 2023

How do people get the news? It is through the media that we get to know the latest happenings around the world. The word ‘media’ encompasses a gamut of sources of news – newspapers, magazines, radio, television and now the Internet and its offshoot social media.

They are a window into the world. Today, we can instantly tune into live news from anywhere in the world, a far cry from the days when only newspapers held sway. In fact, newspapers are not much younger than printing itself, having survived from the 1650s. Some of the oldest newspapers are still in print.

The technological advancement with regard to the dissemination of news is one more challenge faced by the mainstream media, especially print newspapers.  Anyone with a smartphone can instantly become a ‘journalist’ with nary a concern for the truth and journalistic ethics.

Alarmingly, more people now get their “news fix” from their Facebook feed than from print, radio or television. As is well-known, Facebook is a hotbed of misinformation and fake news on everything from Covid-19 to global politics. These posts have often led to internecine clashes and other calamities.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the media landscape is changing, especially with the advent of the Internet. Today, more people access news on their smartphones and tablets than via conventional printed newspapers and television.

Paradigm shift

This is a paradigm shift in the media world. Some people speculate that printed newspapers could have a limited lifespan and could go the way of the Dodo within our lifetimes. The pandemic gave us a rare glimpse of a world without printed newspapers as most newspapers around the world (including this one and the sister newspaper Daily News) went entirely online in web edition and e-paper form, the latter being an exact digital replica of the printed newspaper.

Print newspapers are facing a slew of challenges. The high cost of newsprint is one of the major challenges especially for newspaper publishers in the developing world as newsprint is usually imported from developed countries.

Increasing newsprint prices will remain the print sector’s big worry throughout 2023. Disruption in the supply chain of newsprint due to the Russia-Ukraine war, compounded with a scarcity of waste paper used in recycling have led to the prices going as high as US$1,000/tonne though this has since decreased by a certain margin. For countries such as Sri Lanka that are facing a foreign exchange scarcity, the publishers face the challenge of finding Dollars to finance their imports. Moreover, they have to pay more in local currency terms as well, due to the depreciation of local currencies against the US Dollar. Shipping, insurance and local transport costs too have gone up, adding to their woes.  

Similarly, the costs of printing press consumables such as colour ink and plates have also gone up considerably. These factors have driven up the costs of printing newspapers to stratospheric levels to the point where publishers are not able to recover their costs through advertising and the cover prices.


There are two factors at play here. The share of print advertising is dwindling as advertisers slash their advertising budgets due to their own economic and financial problems. Having done that, they channel most of the remaining advertising Budget to television and online advertising (Google, FB and YouTube ads, for example). Unlike newspapers, these media can instantly flash an advertiser’s message to thousands of potential customers at once.  In a situation where many newspapers compete for the advertisers’ Dollar or Rupee, each newspaper gets only a fraction of the advertisements and the associated revenue.

Newspapers around the world usually boast about their circulation figures, but the caveat here is that a higher circulation figure necessarily leads to higher printing, distribution and manpower costs. Thus very high circulation figures could boomerang on publishers. The cover price is generally not adequate to recover these costs as advertising revenue, which offsets production costs, has come down.

This could mean that a newspaper could spend double or even triple the cost of the actual cover price to print a single newspaper, leading to an overall annual loss.

Investing in new technologies is also almost impossible for most publishers, especially in the developing world. A modern all-colour newspaper printing machine can cost well north of US$ 20 million (Rs.7,500 million approx) which not many publishers can afford. The cost of spare parts for newspaper presses is also very high. The cost of pre-press machines and computers and imaging systems also adds up, apart from the cost of computers, servers, cameras etc. needed for a newspaper to run, not to mention staff salaries, overheads and office supplies such as photocopy paper. 

Times of London

Worldwide, many broadsheet newspapers have become tabloids in an effort to keep the printing costs low without sacrificing the quality of the journalistic output. A good example is the Times of London, which began publishing in the 1700s as a broadsheet. Some newspapers and magazines have gone entirely digital (Newsweek, which used to compete with Time, is a good example) while others have ceased publication completely. The latter results in lay-offs of good journalists and other media workers, but sometimes there does not seem to be an alternative.

These factors have spurred newspapers to offer a better multimedia experience for their readers both in print and online forms to attract readers who seek an experience beyond print even in a printed newspaper. For example, many print newspapers now embed QR Codes in their stories for text-to-speech and for playing audio-video content related to the stories.

For example, an interview with a popular personality can include the relevant video. Many companies that advertise in print newspapers now publish a QR code which, when scanned by a Smartphone or a tablet such as an iPad, opens a website or video with further information. Thus it is print, but not as you know it.

But for readers, especially the younger segments, who have moved on completely from print to their Smartphones or tablets, newspaper apps make perfect sense. They are too lazy to type in a URL bar, but are happy to open an app that presents the newspaper with full multimedia – text, photos, video, audio/podcast, text to speech and extensive graphics. The Guardian of the UK is a good example for an app that does all these things.


Taking the digital route presents its own challenges for newspaper publishers. While many advertisers are happy to advertise on the likes of YouTube, they are not very keen on advertising in the online editions of newspapers and even magazines, knowing that Google, FB and YouTube bring in more “hits”. This means that online editions can be even less profitable than their print counterparts.

Most newspapers have turned to subscription (Paywall) models to keep their online editions afloat. With a few exceptions, these generally tend to be on the low side – even well-known newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are relatively affordable in absolute dollar terms, because people might not be willing to pay top dollar mostly for news, plenty of which is still available for free on the Web. But this is still better than giving a newspaper away for free because good, incisive journalism costs a lot of money. However, many paywalled newspapers do offer around 10-15 articles for free, mainly to entice readers to get a subscription.  

The other model, pioneered by the likes of the Guardian and the Chicago Sun-Times, entails enabling anyone with an Internet connection to gain full access to the newspaper via a web browser or the app, whilst seeking “donations” from readers who like to contribute to the reporting efforts of the newspaper concerned. The Guardian in particular has recorded a high degree of success with this “donation” model with readers from all over the world making contributions. Sri Lankan newspapers have so far not opted for either of these two models, with full access available on both their websites and apps, though things might change in the future as costs including server and cloud computing costs escalate.

A good contrast

While there is a very real possibility that print newspapers might disappear in say, 20 years, they might still survive in another, more high-tech form. If you have seen the Tom Cruise movie ‘Minority Report’, there is a segment where a man in a train reads a newspaper - but this is unlike any newspaper that currently exists. It is an almost transparent film-like surface and the “photos” are actually videos. Actually, the technology for such a newspaper already exists – several manufacturers have showcased rollable, transparent Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens which could one day be the basis for “print” newspapers.

There is another technology that could also be a possible candidate – Electronic Ink or e-Ink, as seen in the Kindle e-readers from Amazon. Unlike reflective screen technologies such as LCD and OLED, e-Ink is almost exactly like paper and emits no harmful blue light. As one display industry veteran put it, e-Ink is a display medium that is thin, flexible, capable of storing readable images without power consumption, highly readable in ambient light, and has good resolution, high whiteness, and good contrast — and is pretty cheap.

Thinner and more affordable

You can already read newspapers on e-Ink devices, but if the display can be made thinner and more affordable, e-Ink newspapers might not be impossible to make. Just imagine a newspaper with ever-changing pages which update after you read them, or as the stories are written. There will be colour videos too – rudimentary colour e-Ink devices are already available. But the big question is when Amazon is going to come out with one – probably two years down the road. That will signal that e-Ink has truly come of age. Proper e-Ink newspapers might not be that far off, after all.

In the end, stories will have to be told, even 1,000 years from now. TV and radio offer only a fleeting glimpse of a news item and this is where long-form, high quality journalism comes in via newspapers and magazines. There will always be a demand for newspapers from those who wish to dig deeper into contemporary issues, regardless of the format the newspapers come in. There is a dire need today more than ever for high quality journalism, a need that will not go away anytime soon. Yes, “print” newspapers may eventually die, but good journalism will live on and on in some other form.