It may be that I have to commit to the headline practices of British tabloid journalism to get over how uneasy I feel about the argument on the future of the press as currently pursued in the UK and the USA. And I do not mean the moral future, though the English love affair with head-wagging, tongue-clicking moral superiority may have been what got our journalists into the business of hacking in the first place, as they sought immorally to find stories of the moral shortcomings of politicians and celebrities. Surely Rupert Murdoch (is it true that he is taking Turkish nationality in order to secure a prime position on the Bosphorus?) can be no surprize in a genealogy that includes Alfred, Lord Northcliffe, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst?

No, I really do mean the economic survival, and I am driven to the keyboard by an eloquent piece in the Financial Times (18 March: Newspapers pressed by Digital Onslaught, from Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson) followed by the weekly column of Peter Preston, who I follow with dog-like devotion in the Observer (19 March). Here we are in our typical halfway house: two different views derived from newspapers being debated by a reader who is himself devoted to reading newspapers (and books and magazines) quite as much as to using the web via laptop, iPad and smartphone. And halfway in another sense: while newspapers have moved to the web in many ways, and Andrew brings together the graphic recent evidence of them increasingly charging for services and building a revenue base, the web has not re-created the newspaper yet. And possibly never will. The looming possibility is that the collectivity of purpose that once made a newspaper a good buy (news, comment, classifieds, dating, puzzles and crosswords, obituaries, readers letters etc, etc) has now been so fragmented on the web that it will never be drawn back together again, unless this is done the the context of social media. For some that is clearly already happening – Facebook is their focussing interface – but it is noteworthy that it has not been newspaper brands that create that focus, despite their online success (the web has made the Guardian a rather unlikely global brand for liberal-minded viewpoints, despite the fact that those reflect editorially the views of some 300,000 British readers, while the Mail Online has stormed to a million registered users through a gossip column approach which reflects only one aspect of its eponymous parent.) Ashley Highfield, who re-invented broadcasting at the BBC has not yet done the same for regional newspapers at Johnston Press (we are waiting!). But with every tick of the clock things get worse. Sorry, Sir Ian Gibson, retiring Chairman of Trinity Mirror (quoted by Peter Preston) your profits are unlikely to recover with the economy. What is happening is structural, not cyclical. It has been happening for a very long time, and the real question is not whether newspapers can survive, but what elements of their value proposition can they migrate across the chasm, as we used to say, into the digitally networked economy/society in which we (and certainly our children and their children) now live. OK, the old world may hold on longer than I think (it needs to in order to provide sheltering revenues and margins to allow new options to emerge) but the new world, built increasingly on collaboration in media forms and not around format specificity (everything for everyone in one place) is here, now.

The argument about the sustainability of print in this sector is one that I have heard over 30 years so endlessly argued in other sectors that I have been immunized against it. The academic journal publishers told me that librarians would always have to have the print for collection purposes, and that students would always need the print to make notes on. Wrong. The yellow page publishers said no one would ever do research for a local supplier online. Wrong. Book publishers said that the digital revolution would never touch them. Wrong. The B2B publishers said the branded trade mag -“they will never desert the trade rag!” – would survive. Wrong. So lets do some scenario setting and see what is likely to happen.

It is 2022 and the economy is still so bad under the TotCol (Lib-Lab-Con) Government of Total Disunity that I am still working as a digital strategy consultant. But life has changed in other ways for the better. My subscription allows me to profile my clients and uses my diary to do so, so when I open up the day’s appointments I have the headlines around what each company/individual has been doing recently. Living in the country I am one of a declining population of car users, but thanks to the Bucks Free Press and the Elgin roadworks database my satnav is pre-warned in terms of road-user problems, and the newspaper service also allows my satnav to prebook  the permissions I will need to get into the automated traffic flow on the motorway and book a parking place at my destination. The handsfree time on the motorway, while the car is being driven for me, allow me to look at the other alerts on the car’s screen which my newspaper service subscriptions have given me. Worryingly, the local council approved an order to cut down a tree that shades my garden, but I can use the paper’s petitioning service to start to mobilize local opinion against this crime. And the FT service voice wants to speak to me, and tells me that she has collected another seven media commentaries on the subject of my next blog. Where do I want them stored. Oh, and the kettle shorted this morning and needs to be replaced. The FT concierge service has a deal with John Lewis, so I select a new one, and Shutl, under contract to the FT, undertakes to deliver it in 3 hours. Just as long as it gets there by teatime!

We are coming to the end of the motorway so I must switch off and resume steering. While machines are endlessly fussy and pedantic, they do speak to each other effectively. Which reminds me. I switch on the FT voice services and speak to my memo pad. I tell it to ask Amazon to send my youngest grandchild a printed copy of Alice in Wonderland (at the special FT discount), with the Tenniel illustrations. I gave her the ePub23 multimedia version some years ago and she loved the way video, voice and print intercombined, but I would like her to see it as the Victorians saw it. Print is quite wonderful if you have little experience of it, and since it is never used in the classroom it is quite a treat when it comes like this, custom created and delivered to the door. So I dictate my own foreword, telling her why I like this book so much, and ask the service to despatch. Book publishing is now 94% digital, and even serious history books, which I love, have video appendices (that’s where all those old TV documentaries ended up!) and links to the digital archives and cross-references.

So, as I park in my designated spot and prepare to go to see my client, do I enjoy this networked world? Probably no more nor less than the present one, but it became tolerable when trusted brands, like the FT and the Bucks Free Press, took an active hand in helping me to re-engineer it to my advantage, and awoke from the passive world of print to live in an interactive world. In order to do so they had to become apps-orientated and software development driven. They became smaller – but more profitable.Their passion became their reader and the impact of events on his life, not their format or their advertizers.

But will they do it – even to survive?


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1 Comment so far

  1. Joachim C Bartels on March 26, 2012 23:10

    What a wonderful blog.
    I have to hasten to exploit my FT subscription. Since I do no longer drive to work I have to explore other services.