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Thursday, January 08, 2009

What if Doomsday for the newspapers is the day after tomorrow?

If you work in print you ought to read this piece by Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic. It poses the question "What if the New York Times were to close?" Not at some undefined point in the future but later this year. What if the owners proved to have too many debts, the revenues continued to plummet, there's no longer such a thing as credit and they could not count on Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates or some other rich believer to bail them out? This won't mean much to British readers but for those who consider themselves sophisticated Americans it would be an epochal event. The nearest thing over here would be waking up one morning and finding that Radio Four had closed.

Meanwhile I learn that the share price of the company that publishes the Daily and Sunday Sport has gone down by 40% in the light of recent trading figures, a Russian billionaire is making enquiries about buying the Evening Standard and the collapse of Waterford Wedgwood is making the problems of The Independent that much more pressing. I'm not one of those people who finds the decline of the billionaires amusing. Like it or not the British press is kept afloat by very rich men with a sentimental attachment to the trade and the influence that goes with it. If it were left to hard headed investors the papers would have folded a few years ago. And nobody believes that anything but a fraction of this revenue can be migrated to other "platforms".

Just look at the so-called quality press in this country. You're probably thinking of titles you don't buy any more. Instead you access them on the web. Each of these is maintained either by a charity or the patronage of a billionaire. And billionaires aren't what they used to be. Hirschorn's piece suggests that we don't much care which brand is on the top of the story that we pull up on Google news. If a few of these brands disappear what will Google be bringing up? And how will we feel about it then?

And finally, one particular aspect of Hirschorn's Doomsday scenario should send a particular shiver down the collected spines of Clapham, Notting Hill and Stoke Newington:
It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind.