If there was ever a media industry milestone, this is it. A closely watched annual survey by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers shows circulation revenues have displaced advertising as the global newspaper's industry top earner -- for the first time in a century (http://bit.ly/1dIfOmz).
The trend has been building for a while, and has a few interesting, possibly contradictory, implications. On the plus side, fears of influence of the almighty advertising dollar on newspaper coverage may turn out to be overblown, and broadsheets (at least those with self-preservation instincts) will presumably redouble efforts to focus on what matters to their audience. On the other hand, if readers are the biggest contributor to the bottom line, we could see more papers opt for Daily Mail-variety shock-and-fluff tactics in a desperate effort to raise circulation numbers, or raise prices to squeeze more cash out of the readers they do have.
One thing to keep in mind that circulation revenue isn't necessarily replacing ad income -- in many mature markets both are stagnant or declining; it's just that ad revenues are dropping at a more precipitous rate. Newspapers therefore won't be absolved of the need to update their business models or hone their content for other platforms. In fact the same survey showed mobile consumption of news is growing faster than ever. Regardless of economic conditions, newspaper ad revenues are also unlikely to stage any kind of meaningful recovery, given the range of other marketing channels advertisers now have to choose from. Not such a great time to be a developed-market newspaper with a limited budget, maybe, but with so many publications (and advertisers) experimenting with new forms of stories and distribution to win hearts, minds and revenue streams, content consumers will have more choice -- and clout -- than ever.
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