Qatar’s newspapers have a digital future…or an expiration date

November 23, 2011

Renowned internet expert Dr. Jeffrey Cole predicts a future for media in Qatar and around the world


Doha, Qatar – November 22, 2011 – In the United States they have less than five years left; in the United Kingdom and Australia, less than ten; and in Doha, newspapers have 12 to 13 years before they go out of print, a leading digital media expert predicts.

“We know that when internet penetration reaches 30%, printed newspaper sales decline.  People start going to the internet to get their news,” Dr. Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future and a renowned expert on the use of the Internet and broadband technology, went on to say at a public discussion held by Northwestern University in Qatar on Monday evening.

NU-Q’s aspiring media professionals and faculty, Doha residents, and members of the local business community assembled at the W Hotel to hear Dr. Cole’s lecture titled: “Surveying the Digital Future: What Everyone Needs to Know about the Internet,” which examined current global trends in the use of the Internet and its implications for media, social life, and business.

“The saddest truth for newspapers, and a trend that we’ve seen for the past 11 years, is that every time a newspaper reader dies, they are not being replaced by a new reader,” added Dr. Cole.

Yet despite this trend, Dr. Cole’s outlook on the future for newspapers is optimistic. “No mass media ever disappears, it changes it adapts,” explained Dr. Cole. “Radio didn’t roll over and die when television came along, it adapted and changed and today radio is a vibrant and important medium for music and information.”

“Likewise, as we look at all of our mass media today, I believe that most will indeed survive, just as smaller players.”

So where does that leave the newspaper and magazine industry? “Newspapers and magazines are in trouble with print, but they have a better future digitally.  If they do nothing more than move their content from paper to a screen, they’ve already won,” said Dr. Cole.  He went on to note that two thirds of a big city newspaper budget goes to printing and distribution- costs that will be unnecessary with a full move to digital publication. Besides being more environmentally friendly, this may mean newspapers can hire more writers and pay them higher salaries.

Outlining additional benefits of “going digital,” Dr. Cole said, “Digital media will help newspapers and magazines attract more readers and provide them new and different ways to interact with those readers,” pointing out the potential for interactive content and advertisements and greater incorporation of audio and video. “This is actually the most exciting era for newspapers.”

In response to a question from the audience about the effect of going digital on the quality of journalism, Dr. Cole said, “The movement of information from paper to electronic screen is just a transition from one platform to another. I don’t think it means deterioration in quality.  After more than ten years of using the internet, people have seen that there is good and bad information online and they are learning to determine between the two.  Very encouragingly in the US, we are seeing teenagers who never picked up a copy of the New York Times going to as a trusted source of information.”

“So there is actually a new appreciation for high quality writers and editors, precisely because we’ve seen so much bad information online,” he concluded.

Dr. Cole’s observations are the result of a more than ten-year longitudinal study of people’s use of the Internet and broadband technologies. Dr. Cole, who has been at the forefront of media and communication technology policy for more than 20 years, runs the World Internet Project, which studies the impact of the Internet in more than 25 countries around the world. The project provides information to policy-makers and major companies, as well as teachers, parents and journalists, on how technology is changing our lives.

The lecture on Monday delved into a range of additional topics covered in the study, including the effect that the Internet has had on the music industry, social networking trends, the transformational effect of smartphones and tablets, and the migration of television out of the home and onto mobile and tablet screens.

A new phenomenon, termed “e-nuff already,” has further lessons for media and businesses, and is a result of what Dr. Cole describes as the “always on” of broadband Internet.  Although no one wants to give up the Internet, people are growing tired of digital technology controlling and determining their lives. Having the internet at your fingertips anywhere and anytime is blurring the line between work and home, and causing a “fear of missing out” that makes it hard to get away from digital devices. The farther-reaching effects of this trend have yet to be seen.

“Dr. Cole has done something that no one else has, he was prescient enough in the 1990s to see that something important was happening with the introduction of the Internet, something that would affect all of our lives,” said Dr. Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, “His insight and expertise have made for a fascinating inauguration of our new ‘Media Vision’ lecture and discussion series, and we look forward to introducing our future speakers, all thought leaders in their own right, to NU-Q and the wider community.”

In a final piece of advice to the audience, Dr. Cole encouraged: “Your learning curve should be steeper than your action curve- your job is to observe and evaluate. It is irrelevant whether you like something or not, you should always learn what you can and be on the lookout for knowledge.”