On Saturday, March 26 the Independent will publish its last edition in print. The Independent on Sunday sold for the last time on March 20. The distinctive El Pais of Madrid has announced that it will take “a step from paper to digital”. The Guardian with a huge online readership, shrinking print sales and sizeable losses plans to shed 250 jobs, of which 100 will be journalists.
Another 100 journalists are at risk on newspapers and websites run by one of Britain’s largest regional groups, Johnston Press. And Fairfax Media, the venerable Australian publisher that prints the countries two biggest dailies, announced plans to cut another 120 editorial jobs at the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the seventh round of redundancies since 2004.
Do these developments signal that print journalism, after ailing for two decades, is dying at last? The answer is no: journalism is not dying. It is not even dying in print.
Newspapers do fail and people lose their livelihoods. But papers are extraordinarily hard to kill. Millionaires, whose methods in any other business are unsentimental and ruthless, preserve them because they think they bring influence and prestige. Even if falling circulations and reputations dilute the influence, newspaper ownership guarantees political access. More newspapers died in the US around the early 1960s, when television was becoming a mass medium and seizing advertising, than have been extinguished by the arrival of the internet.
When an industry is in decline, the turbulence will throw up opportunities. The Independent started i, which its owners recently sold to Johnston Press. Trinity Mirror has just launched a national paper, New Day.
But these are exceptions to a long, steady trend and it is not towards the extinction of print. The remorseless change is the threat to the business model of daily, general-interest printed news. Specialist newspapers such as the Financial Times and The Economist, many of whose readers charge their subscriptions to their employers, are not facing the same red ink in their accounts. Magazines rise and fall – but survive better.
Advertisers and readers have gradually deserted daily papers across the western world. Even where circulations appear to have held up, profitability has not. Even countries such as Germany or Finland, where this downward trend worked more slowly, are not exempt. Even countries such as China, India or Brazil, where print circulations were expanding at the turn of the millennium, can see that print will soon be second to online as a news medium.
Loved, hated and respected as newspapers have been, these histories and feelings cannot undo the simple reality they are a cumbersome and expensive way to transmit fact and opinion when anyone with a smartphone can summon them with a thumb.
Look historically at Britain’s national press and you can see that its dominance was surprisingly brief. Cheap, national papers with large circulations really only took hold at the start of the 20th century. Their total circulations peaked between 1950 and 1955. The Daily Mirror hit its highest circulation many years ago, in 1966. The late 20th century was an exceptional period for news: both print and broadcast enjoyed steady income.
Death and rebirth
Journalists are understandably gloomy about what is happening now. But the volatile sequences of publishers experimenting with something new, failing and then trying again would have been entirely familiar to journalists of the 18th or 19th centuries. Did Charles Dickens sit in a panelled office in a single, steady newspaper job all his life while writing novels on the side? He did not: he joined or founded more than one start-up and more than one failed. His writing lasted, but his businesses did not. Technology is now dragging us into the future but the experience has echoes of the past.
Newsrooms are more than just places of which journalists become fond. They are storehouses of knowledge, technique and values. Journalists worried that major news brands will disappear have a real concern: that journalism’s job of “holding power to account” will be done less effectively without that accumulated experience and memory. They have been told for years not to worry. Fear not, say the digital gurus, new online “unicorn” businesses will rise where others have fallen. The news business often has to re-invent itself and this is one of those moments.
As a description of history’s trajectory, this optimistic prediction will probably turn out to be right. As I found when researching my book, Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age, the need for accurate and reliably independent information is deeply embedded in the elites of developed societies and those communities will eventually solve the business problems which currently afflict the production of news. I can even see that recovery starting in the recovery of investigative journalism (both in start-ups and inside mainstream newsrooms), the outstanding online analysis of the European migration crisis or the rise of Donald Trump and the energetic work of a new breed of verification sites.
But, as the digital pundit Clay Shirky pointed out, transitions are an exhausting mess if you actually have to live through them. In a deservedly famous blogpost seven years ago, he wrote:
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.
The old is dying but the new has not yet been born. Reflecting on Shirky’s wisdom, Wolfgang Blau, currently at Condé Naste but with experience at the Guardian and Die Zeit, wrote recently:
Sad? Yes. When a newspaper goes down, the greatest loss - beyond the immediate loss of jobs – is the disappearance of a social fabric, a true social network that had been built and nurtured over decades. Pessimistic? No, not really. Optimistic about the future of journalism? Yes. Still.