The death of print

10 Mins read

The print version of the Independent newspaper died last month due to complications related to haemorrhaging in the money department.

The national broadsheet has been in a critical condition for many years and, on February 12, with no matching donor and its younger brother, the ‘i’, having lost touch, the Independent was taken off life support and died at around midday.

Thus came the lamentable death of Britain’s youngest quality paper; the only unbiased print publication to ever hit the shelves of our corner shops and newsagents and now, in its place, an empty hole, a space to be filled by the ever-popular glossy titles that reflect our faces from their eye-level spot on the newsstand.

The Independent was founded in 1986 by three former Telegraph journalists Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover, and Matthew Symonds.

It was a time of great turmoil for the news media.

With Murdoch causing trouble with the print unions and pissing off most of his staff in the process, the new publication attracted the disgruntled few that refused to follow Rupert and his merry band of printers down to Wapping, using the slogan “The Independent – It is. Are you?”

Boasting of its independence from the influence of proprietors – and often poking fun at the likes of NewsCorp and the Telegraph’s new owner Conrad Black – the newspaper soared, and within three years was enjoying a daily circulation of more than 400,000.

It jostled with the Guardian for the centre-left readers and teased The Timesfor its reportage and was doing well through the early and mid-nineties.

As the new millennium loomed and the internet took off, the broadsheet had dipped to below 200,000 readers and by 2004 it was reportedly losing £5 million a year.

The newspaper had fallen on hard times, shedding staff and moving into the offices of the Evening Standard at Northcliffe house, the business equivalent of selling all your CDs and sleeping on your friend’s sofa.

When Evgeny Lebedev bought Independent News for Media for a quid in 2010, it hinted at the kind of financial hole that the paper had managed to dig itself into.

It seemed like the deal of the century. But, in actual fact, it was more of the sort one might be offered while sitting outside a pub by a desperate man who is willing to take whatever he can get: “Wanna buy a bike? Yours for a tenner, help me out mate!”

The heir to his father’s oligarch fortune seemed poised to transform the loss-making paper and, with the introduction of the ‘i’ in the same year, it seemed as though The Independent and the Independent on Sunday might just soldier on, with shrapnel in its legs but steel in its heart.

Unfortunately, almost six years on, with circulation dropping to around 40,000 a day, having been somewhat cannibalised by the younger brother that was supposed to act as its crutch, it just ran out of options.

Of course, it’s not the end for the title, it will expand its ever growing online presence and there it will remain. But, with the sale of its cut-price alternative – and chief source of funds – the ‘i’, to Johnston Press for £25m, the newspaper will have no alternative but to cease to exist and, before long, slip into the realm of distant memory.

And what we don’t realise now is how terrible a shame this truly is. If ever there was proof that print is on the way out, is this not it?

With the demise of The Indy, the population of quality papers in print has reduced by 25 per cent over night. Without a doubt we must all evolve and adapt to fit in to an ever-unsure future, but that of journalism is looking increasingly wobbly.

The industry that many of us can’t live without – and perhaps sometimes take for granted – is currently undergoing perhaps the biggest evolution since the repeal of the Stamp Act and, while there is no doubt surrounding its continuance, there is plenty shrouding its future quality.

For many, the only sensible reason to cling to print is nostalgia. No longer will dad venture out on a cold Saturday morning to pick up a copy of the daily whatever, no more will we peruse the headlines as we pick up a pint of milk.

Fish will be wrapped in copies of Elle magazine and Vogue, newspaper cuttings will become a thing of the past, and old copies of the business section will cease to await the turn of the season by the side of the fireplace.

We like to slate the internet for its large quantity of journalistic detritus, and no one can possibly suggest that everything printed in a newspaper is the kind of quality journalism that upholds the journalistic values as the fourth estate of democracy.

As Will Gore, the Deputy Managing Editor of the Independent titles and the Evening Standard, puts it: “It’s very easy to imagine that there was this great golden age when everything that was ever reported was hard, serious news, and I don’t really think that existed. Newspapers have always reported on more mundane things, what might be regarded as trivialities.”

It is, of course, undoubtedly true that a large portion of the press publishes some fairly questionable stories. The Sun and The Daily Mail, are two of the biggest culprits with their scandal-mongering and thousands of things that may cause or cure cancer – like coffee which apparently does both.

An important thing to note is that, with the demise of the Independent print titles, a quarter of Britain’s quality papers went out the window, and the balance of publications on the newsstand tipped even further in favour of the papers that we love to hate.

But we know not to reach for a red top for hard-hitting news, yet they continually manage to reach far higher circulations than our nation’s quality press. The Sun alone enjoys a higher circulation than the GuardianTelegraph, Independent, and Times put together

So do we start to worry when the circulations of the few remaining former broadsheet titles are dwindling?

We now are firmly into the digital age, where no limits seem to be imposed at all on size, type, or apparently quality of copy. Where there is room for everything, from politics to proctology, from crime to videos featuring an angry cat all contained under the same banner. Who’s to tell what qualifies as journalism and what doesn’t?

Speaking to Matthew Wall, the Technology of Business Editor at the BBC, it becomes apparent that the difficulty for the future of journalism is the increasingly blurred line between what counts and what doesn’t.

When asked whether the online platform could allow quality journalism to be lost in a sea of irrelevance, he agreed. “With the rise of social media, everyone’s opinion seems to carry equal weight, reducing the authority journalists – and newspapers – used to have”

“Who is telling the truth?” he asks, “Buzzfeed or the BBC? In the era of instapundits, who takes time to dig down and find the truth? Are we all just content producers these days, irrespective of the veracity or quality of that content?”

It’s often the case with journalists that we assume a slightly elitist position of privilege in society, we have always been the ones to get to the information first and dish it out to our paying customers. For many hacks, to think that someone else is doing something similar using Twitter or Facebook is absolutely ludicrous.

“We will always need trusted editors to curate this sea of content” says Wall, “and I think we’re going to have to start paying for it.”

But here lies the importance of the print media. It imposes limits on what is and what isn’t news. Pick up a newspaper on a particularly good day and you will not be bombarded with stories about valentine’s cards from your cat or the latest social media feud between people that don’t matter.

Instead it will be filled with the news that journalists have made the executive decision to put into it. Perhaps one or two fluff pieces may slip through the net, but news always comes first.

Some pieces will have been cut to make way for others, and others will have been passed off as a waste of good paper. With print there is always the feeling that quality always takes precedence.

This is not to say that those who run the digital media do not need to make similar news choices, but being so heavily dependent on revenue from advertisers that they must keep traffic at a consistent level in order to attract them, “clickbait” is creeping further and further into our the online publications.

Joanna Montgomery, who has worked on digital platforms for the likes of Sky, Bauer and the BBC, says that we should be “cautious” of being entirely data-driven.

“Many publishers are using the same tools and are therefore creating similar content based on search volumes, that’s great as a bedrock of your content strategy but it shouldn’t be the whole cake – you still need the originality and creativity from journalistic skills to provide the icing.

“The challenge is finding a way to marry the two ways of thinking,” Montogomery said.

When the broadsheets started to plaster celebrities parading the red carpet on the front page, the same sort of thing was starting to creep into the newspapers in order to increase sales.

But there was always the feeling that it would be shoved straight back out if something more important came up.

Online there is less need for this decision – both can be published and, while many will say “the more the merrier,” the standard-bearer for dystopian literature Aldous Huxley would suggest otherwise.

In 1985, the media theorist and writer Neil Postman published a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death; and his theories still carry a lot of clout.

In efforts to prove that Huxley’s vision of the future – one in which the public is oppressed by its addiction to amusement – has more weight to it than Orwell’s fear of censorship and control in 1984, the former NYU professor advances an idea that has become increasingly relevant with the rise of the digital news media: instead of being hidden from us as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four predicts, is important information simply lost amongst the unimportant? Has our craving for entertainment taken its toll on our news media?

Perhaps not, as Joanna Montgomery points out: “I think it’s a fallacy that digital publishing means less prioritisation or quality of content due to the removal of space constraint. Digital brands may not be confined by pages or column inches but there are definitely still limits to what a title can and should be publishing within a given field.”

But, as Will Gore says, it does have its limitations. When website hits are the currency that news outlets sell to advertisers, “you have to find a whole range of things that are going to pull people to the site.

“Then once they’re there, you have to convince them to stay by showing them the other things that are on offer around what they came to look at.”

According to Matthew Wall, there are few other options. The news media, he says, are caught in a “vicious pincer movement” between declining sells and decreasing revenue from advertising.

“This is why some had to resort to clickbait tactics to generate a bigger volume of hits online and boost advertising income,” he continues. “Very few are managing to make money this way.”

The move from print to digital has long been in the pipeline and one that many publications are sure to follow. With dwindling sales and the ever present threat of a declining economy, the news media have to continue to operate as best they can.

New Day newspaper

New kid on the block [Russell Merryman]

Much of the American press has already made the leap to online, reducing the number of days on which they print their papers, but continuing to thrive all the same.

We can say that their survival is the most important thing, but surely far more important is the state in which they survive.

Longevity has its place, and of course the news media is still hugely important, but if the closure of The Independent‘s print titles says anything about the press as a whole is that it really needs fixing.

Without purchased journalism, through a paywall or cover charge, we may be risking a complete change in the role of journalism is in our society.

As the news media in print slowly disappears and free internet news sources expand their online presence, Matthew Wall believes that “independent, investigative reporting is seriously under threat and our democracy will suffer as a result.”

“The main issue,” he says, “is that the fundamental economic model underpinning print newspapers has been destroyed by the internet. People used to be prepared to pay for a newspaper.

“With the advent of the internet, readers, used to free content, didn’t see why they should pay for news online – it became a commodity. And paying to receive yesterday’s news via the dead-tree press doesn’t make sense anymore in the 24/7 digital era,” Wall believes.

The point is that the press we need risks becoming dwarfed by the press we’d like – if the press must continue to survive in a consumer-driven free market, we will only see more situations like The Independent.

Skilled, brilliant journalists, who have been plugging away since before the internet revolution will have to look for jobs as opposed to planning for a well-deserved retirement.

Are we now to spend hours trawling through the interminable dross about nostalgic crap that litters the homepage of Buzzfeed, or the “50 best ways to perform oral sex in a car” in the shiny magazines that shadow the copies of The Guardian, Times and Telegraph at the offy?

Now that the Trinity Mirror Group’s new venture, The New Day, has emerged out of the premature ashes of the printing press, perhaps all is not lost.

We might have asked ourselves whether this new daily was a foolhardy or a prescient undertaking, but looking at it, surely we can be in no doubt.

At 25p we might have expected something similar to the ‘i’ but while it is a carbon copy in terms of style, it couldn’t be further away in terms of content.

The occasional bit of news in it is encircled with a big dose of the feelies, sport takes up residence between the opinion section and the celebs, and there is so little substance across its 40 pages that I don’t even remember reading it.

Teething problems, possibly, and only time will tell whether The New Day can stand up under the financial strains of the industry.

If there is one thing that the loss of The Independent demonstrates, it’s that our quality press is in dire straits.

I worry that before too long we might see it shuffle off its mortal coil, leaving the old hacks who upheld its ideals to sit at empty desks, their heads in their hands, and sigh.


Featured image by Jon S via Flickr CC

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