A popular Indonesian social media observer recently posted on Twitter that one of Indonesia’s largest online media houses had lost one million readers within a month and the hemorrhage was continuing.

There is little way to know if this statement is accurate because, with the recent demise of Alexa, there are no more free references to ratings or viewership estimates for this online news portal. The loss, however, is plausible given the fact that it is just an acceleration of the downward trend of readership experienced by online media houses.

The observer posed the question whether this recent 7-figure loss in readers represented an inflection point for online media where, after this, the decline would be steep and irreversible.

He has a point, but whether the inflection point has been reached may still be too early to tell, especially with the Government’s plans to introduce a law regulating Publisher’s Rights.

Why the regulation is significant is that it may give the online media an opportunity to reset their downward trajectory.

Readership, and consequently, advertising revenue has been declining for the online news media for some time now. The online media largely blame the social media platforms and search engines and their algorithms.

They say that unless they ride the algorithmic wave – by publishing only stories on topics that are going viral or trending – they would not be able to attract eyeballs. News, therefore, becomes determined by the algorithms.

The speed of social media, they claim, also makes it difficult for them to follow the traditional professional practices of journalism such as proper research, getting information from multiple sources as well as double checking on, and verifying, claims. 

The result is that Indonesian journalism today is largely of the cut-and-paste variety with little to no checks and balances and where speed trumps accuracy.

This has naturally triggered a migration of eyeballs away from the online news media. The reaction to this drop in eyeballs, and its consequent crop in their advertising revenue, is a desperate pandering to what they think advertisers are after. Some news sites are not unreadable because you have intrusive advertisements popping up above, below, and on top of news stories.  This degrades the viewers’ experience and drives more of them away. It is no accident that Indonesia has one of the highest use of advertisement blockers in the region.

If things go along this path, it looks like the end is nigh for the online news media. 

There might, however, be a window of opportunity to reverse their fortunes for these online news media. The Indonesian Government is now planning to introduce regulation to uphold publishers’ rights. 

If this happens then the news media can be potentially free from the yoke of the Algorithm – if they get their act together. The idea behind the Publisher’s Rights is that it will reward publishers for producing good quality content by making it more expensive for the social media and search platforms to indiscriminately crawl and re-publish any piece of content.

This restores some form of control to the publishers or the online news portals. Whether they use this opportunity may well determine whether they will continue to exist or join the dinosaurs.

News outlets need to realize that their true value to readers is to inform and educate rather than just entertain their audiences. In an environment where we are all surrounded by fake news,  deep fakes, and cyber armies, audiences want a source that they can trust to order their priorities on what they are informed about. This has been the traditional role of news organizations and what gives it value.

In the age of the internet and the democratization of information distribution, sticking to this role may result in fewer readers as the masses really want to be entertained. This is a development that the news outlets may need to accept before they can move forward. Fewer but more discerning audiences who would not mind paying for quality information and advertisers who want access to these audiences.

It will inevitably mean a shakeup and consolidation for the news industry. Only a few will survive, many will perish but that is already happening so the news outlets should not squander their chance to reset and reclaim their mission.

Written by Liston Damanik, Senior Associate