ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA—Each time I visit the sunny town of my boyhood I’m injected with cold CCs of journalistic despair. The St. Petersburg Times, my beloved hometown newspaper, has seen readership declines and staff cuts, just like many other American dailies.
While local readers might be more habituated to the Times’ bigger fonts, wider wordless margins, fewer sections, and overall shrunken size, I’m aghast at how just one year can age this creature. Other once-great newspapers in this state—The Orlando Sentinel, The Miami Herald, The Tampa Tribune—are also pale leaflets compared to what they used to be.
Allow me, then, to bring some good news in the New Year about journalism’s future, for I see millions of new readers and viewers, even paying customers, on the way. These coming news needers probably will not save many domestic dinosaurs—but those in the global information business have considerable growth to look forward to.
Most of the 6.8 billion people alive are not yet Internet users; another two billion people will co-inhabit the planet by 2050, according to conservative estimates. Upwards of 30 percent of human beings have never flicked a light switch, according to science author Matt Ridley.
Over the next decade there will be a new “force at work,” former British prime minister Gordon Brown told Fareed Zakaria on CNN in December 2010: “ the massive expansion of Asian consumer demand. That is the hope for the British, European and American economies. You’re going to have a billion [new] consumers. You’re going to have a consumer market twice the size of the American market at some point quite soon in the East.”
The new consumers Brown speaks of are going to want news about the products they acquire and the services they hire. They’re going to consume news about international trade and global affairs. They’re going to consume news of the bizarre, the novel, and the unusual in their spare time. What this means in terms of dollars and cents for journalism will depend on global news organizations’ ability to monetize their product over the next ten years. But make no mistake, the news consumers we need will be there.
Greater demand for global news will come from other parts of the world, too, including the United States. It is true that The Miami Herald does not cover Latin America with the same scope that it once admirably did, and it is also the case that ABC World News with Diane Sawyer comes nowhere close to actually covering the world. From other sources, though, Americans are getting global news like never before, and demand will increase in the coming decades. Americans are less insular than you may think.
While it may not equal that of other nationalities, American fascination with the world beyond our fifty has always existed, and it always will. Do people in Oklahoma City and Ames, Iowa want less information about the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa than they did fifty years ago? No; they want more. Do Americans know less about the world than they did fifty, or even twenty-five years ago? No; they know more, and need to know more still. American jobs, debt, and security are increasingly reliant on forces abroad, and Americans will consume more and more international news. They will have no choice.
Much of the self-doubt expressed by American journalism and media scholars about the lifeless news industry is ethnocentric, focusing mainly on the gauntness of much of the U.S. news industry. Ken Doctor wrote in Newsonomics that “[w]e’re getting less news. There are simply far fewer people bringing it to us.” This may be true for news volume in local U.S. newspapers, which Doctor mentions, but this statement is true in no other sense. Americans are consuming more news and information now than they ever have, from more news providers—both domestic and foreign—than they ever have.
“So long as human exchange and specialization are allowed to thrive somewhere, then culture evolves whether leaders help it or hinder it, and the result is that prosperity spreads, technology progresses freedom grows, knowledge flourishes,” Matt Ridley wrote in The Rational Optimist.
As long as global news innovation, exchange and specialization thrive somewhere, I submit, the outcome will be a net increase in the amount, quality and sustainability of sound journalism. And despite arguably “hindering leaders”—the sickly Washington Post, for example—pro-social evolution of international news systems will continue. The business of providing timely, meaningful global information is not in doubt, and should never have been.