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.


  1. Could a piece have summed up the whole problem better? Not Hirschon's, the blog itself. Written by Dave H (not a bad scribbler), with links to great pieces in the Atlantic, the Guardian (twice), and the Telegraph; and enjoyed by me for nought pence.

    The Indie, the Express, the Mirror and obviously the Sport are truly suffering. They'll be gone sooner than we think, followed by better newspapers too. It's not just the unworkable models, it's the debt levels. All the retailers who have gone, and most of the newspapers that will, have debt mountains. Without this debt there is a hope of cutting the cloth. With it, pop.

    Replacing old media, punters on the net will pick up the slack, often doing a better job for free than the professional journalists do for a living. If all the, say, gadget mags disappeared, it wouldn't matter other than to those who make their living from them. But Hirschon chickened out at the end. News is different. We are approaching the end of independent, well-funded, professional news journalism, and while there's nothing we can do about it, we should be very sad about it.

    Indeed, take this post by Dave, skills honed by a lifetime as a professional, and linking to corporate news organisations who know exactly what they are doing and have the resources these pieces need. In a world of amateurs toiling in the so-called blogosphere, will the quality stay this good? Of course it won't. It can't.

  2. I agree with his point about newspapers damaging their own brand by chasing the golden goose of service/lifestyle journalism. When I come back to London now I barely recognize The Guardian anymore, 2/3 of it seems to be taken up with Jamie Oliver recipes, and coming home this Xmas I was stunned that the final of Strictly Come Dancing was deemed front-page worthy by all of the "quality" newspapers.

  3. Aren't there any eccentric young billionaires around to pick up the slack? The Times it is a'changin'.

  4. Here in Holland, one newspaper is attempting to do something new and having some success in doing so. The NRC Handelsblad is the most serious of the newspapers here and appears in the afternoon and on Saturday morning. Their solution was to launch a morning newspaper but one that combines some of the quality writing from the afternoon paper with the sorts of short briefs which you see in the freesheets. They also understand the idea of dovetailing with the internet and including a new sort of content (ie not following the current model of what should be in a newspaper). In three years they have built a subscription base of 80,000 (that would be 320,000 if translated to a country the size of Britain) and one of their competitors is about to launch something similar. Many of these people will have never previously subscribed to a newspaper before.

    The key thing is that the newspaper was launched to attract readers who wouldn't otherwise buy a newspaper. It is clearly produced by a young team of writers but their take on what should be in a newspaper is so interesting and refreshing that I, a man of 43 years old, also love it. Oh and they don't bother with much celebrity stuff.

    A typical front page can be illustrated with wednesday's issue. Lots of newspapers write stuff about how cold it is. This newspaper (called incidentally) takes that idea as its starting point and then compares current temperatures with those seen here in the 18th century in Holland and currently in Moscow. This produces two separate fascinating articles, neither of which would be in a newspaper which follows the current model.

  5. I was in on the internet 'boom' at the end of its early success. We realised we coudn't sustain the projects through advertising even then. So who's going to be the first newspaper to start charging for online content, then?

  6. But what will you stand a bag of compost on, when you need to re-pot your window boxes?

  7. This is probably reinventing a wheel that's been worn bare and scrapped, but why don't publishers cut their losses, settle their differences and get together in groups and offer their combined web content for a flat rate, which would then be distributed among the partners according to some kind of hit-rate system - a kind of iTunes for journalism content?

    For example, if not-very-many pounds a year would get me access to, say, The Guardian and/or The Independent, Word, the New Statesman, Wired and New Scientist, I'd definitely be up for it. But subscribing to half a dozen or more different sites would be a nightmare: I'm deep enough in password and standing-order hell as it is.

  8. All attempts to charge have failed or are about to fail mainly because it only takes a couple of mavericks not to play the game, and the house of cards comes down .... if you get the tortuous analogy. Paying for media content online will never happen other than for extremely specialised and niche information, and certainly never for broad news. So new models are required, which in many ways will -- must -- work. The trouble is gathering and analysing news -- hard news -- is so bloody expensive. The Daily Mail has 450 full-time editorial staff. At the moment...

  9. The first thing that Rupert Murdoch did when he bought The Wall Street Journal was to dismantle their pay wall.

  10. And now I read that Hearst have given themselves sixty days to sell the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the 145-year-old daily. If they can't they will close it.

  11. If the quality papers die, any chance of finding out what the people who run the world are really up to dies with them. Bloggers are fine for opinion pieces, but a press dependent on Wikipedia is essentially a wing of Haliburton's PR department