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The destruction of newspapers is horrible to watch – but it could also be creative

By Andrew Gimson


No wonder the man reading a newspaper looks disorientated. Already in the illustration which accompanies this article everyone else is getting their news by electronic means. He is the odd man out, the weirdo, so feels embarrassed.

It is surprising the poor man has managed to get hold of a newspaper at all, for news and paper are in the process of getting a divorce. As Kim Fletcher, editor of the British Journalism Review and a former editor of the Independent on Sunday, told me when I consulted him about the future of newspapers: “They have no future in traditional form. There is now too much evidence that people will not buy them.”

A hurricane is blowing through the newspaper industry. The circulations of many famous titles have halved in the last ten years and remain in headlong decline. We are in the middle of a storm and cannot tell how many once mighty titles will have been blown away by the time it has played itself out.

Fletcher puts the conundrum: “The big question is who is going to pay for journalism, and no one has really cracked this.”

A national newspaper would traditionally employ a staff of several hundred journalists. This was expensive, but a successful title could still make stupendous sums of money. When Evelyn Waugh wrote Scoop, he exaggerated for comic effect, but the colossal quantities of cash and equipment which William Boot expended in order to cover the war in Ishmaelia were not fundamentally implausible.

The most successful newspapers were until a few years ago very rich, and could spend vast sums on whatever they thought their readers wanted. They often paid their most famous contributors quite large amounts to write only one article a week, or in some cases three or four articles. These privileged individuals were known as columnists, and it is said some people would buy a newspaper simply for the pleasure of reading Bernard Levin, Alan Watkins or Michael Wharton .

Those days are over. It is not just that Levin, Watkins and Wharton are dead. Today, if we wish to read their successors, we can quite likely Google them and get them without the newspaper that pays their wages. But it is in any case questionable whether they have true successors, in the sense of journalists who can each week devote their entire professional attention to a small body of work of the highest quality.

As Fletcher says, the big unanswered question is who will pay for online journalism, most of which could initially be had for free. Two possible answers suggest themselves: that it will be paid for out of advertising, or else by subscription.

The advertising option is a tough one, for online advertisers have other options, such as Yahoo and Facebook, which are a way of reaching vast numbers of people. So unless one can reach a vast public – a feat which Mail Online seems to be in the process of achieving – one cannot hope for a very handsome revenue from this source.

But subscriptions are difficult too. People have got used to being able to get journalism for free. When The Times began to charge for online access, its online readership plummeted. Specialist publications such as the Financial Times are said to be doing well from online subscriptions, but most newspapers have to be very careful not to charge too much.

Newspaper managements are terrified that they are going bankrupt. Their natural inclination, as they attempt the awkward transition from paper to electronic publication, is to cut costs. They wish to employ many fewer journalists, and to get those who are left to do more.

As Stephen Glover, a media commentator who is also a columnist for the Daily Mail, pointed out to me, if a newspaper suddenly goes digital, it may well not be able to support much of a staff at all: “That’s the scary thing.”

A workaholic mentality has taken hold: a reduced staff is expected to produce more words, and to do so at pretty much any time of the day or night. There is no longer much time for research or travel or conversation or reading which may not be of immediate value, in the sense of producing an immediate piece, but which may be of enormous value in producing a better understanding of a subject.

When journalists can no longer leave their desks, they tend to know less and less about the world on which they are reporting or commenting. Foreign news can be written at a desk in London off the internet, and so can just about anything else. The problem with this way of doing things is that everything starts to seem second-hand and derivative. Even when correspondents manage to get somewhere near the action on which they are reporting, they may be under such pressure to file a round-the-clock supply of stories that to leave the place they are staying in becomes impossible.

All work and no play makes Jack or Jill a dull journalist. Our newspapers contain less and less work which rises above the level of competence, and more and more that is a pale imitation of work which has already appeared elsewhere. A spiral of decline can all too easily set in: a dull newspaper or internet site which gets duller because the hard-pressed staff is being forced to do too much, which in turn leads to a decline in readership, which in turn leads to falling revenues and further job cuts, which in turn lead to lower editorial standards. Like starving animals, these once well-fed organsations present a distressing sight to those of us who knew them in better days. They are also a dreadful warning to those who fear their own publications are going the same way. Journalism now is full of frightened workers keeping their heads down in the hope of avoiding the next round of job cuts.

Yet there are some grounds for optimism. Recent research by the Reuters Institute in Oxford suggests that in the last year, the United Kingdom has seen “a significant jump” in the percentage of people prepared to pay for online news, from 4 per cent to 9 per cent.

Many good people still want to come into journalism, many interesting things are being tried out at low cost on the internet, and some of these things will go on to earn revenue. Sales of apps are rising.

And there is still an appetite for news. For those who can work out how to satisfy it, there is still a market for many different kinds of journalism, including, admittedly, journalism for which no charge is made.

The first glory of the internet was that it enabled excessively restrictive editing to be exchanged for no editing at all. But that first, fine, careless rapture could not last. Some form of editing turns out to be essential. Without editing, the sheer volume of material becomes impossible. Few of us have time to read many hundreds of responses to an article, in order to discover the dozen which are of greatest interest. That is what a good letters editor on a newspaper was for: to identify the dozen responses which were worth printing, and to discard those which were merely cranky or obscene.

The best online sites succeed because they have an editorial structure which enables people to find what they want, and avoid what they do not want. The mediocrity of so much of what is published is itself an opportunity for anyone with the ability to do things better. Sites can be founded which are as satisfying as a good newspaper. There is a bright future for the media, and for those traditional newspapers which work out how to adapt themselves to new conditions: Mark Wallace described yesterday on this site how the Daily Telegraph has set about this task. The destruction will be horrible to watch, let alone to experience, but in the end it will also turn out to be creative.


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