Lebedev is right to stop printing the Indy – the future of journalism is digital

Dreaming of a digital-only future. Reuters/Dylan Martinez

More bad news for those remaining staff at The Independent who don’t command instant name recognition or six-figure salaries. Up to 100 of the newspaper’s unsung heroes – a group presumably comprising mainly those who struggle to design and produce the print version – will be looking for work after March 26.

The journalists’ anger is mainly aimed at the Independent’s chairman, Evgeny Lebedev. But if you look at his announcement to his staff, it’s hard to disagree with his conclusion that:

We faced a choice: manage the continued decline of print, or convert the digital foundation we’ve built into a sustainable, profitable future.

As far as printed news goes, the writing has been on the wall for some time. There have, of course, been false alarms in the past – predictions of the demise of print were common as cinema, radio and TV gained in popularity. Those proved to be premature. But now, more than a century later, the internet is posing a more potent threat by far and those predictions look to be finally coming true.

Legacy: The Independent’s first front page from 1986. Peter J Jordan / PA Wire/Press Association Images

In 2008, during his speech at the opening ceremony of the 61st World Newspaper Congress, the then president of the World Association of Newspapers and chief executive of Independent News and Media, Gavin O’Reilly, called the imminent decline of print “sheer nonsense” – but within two years his family had sold the Independent titles for £1 to the Lebedevs, so he must have had an inkling.

This constant state of denial – in which most print media proprietors are trapped – not only clashes with modes of consumption that are ultimately driven by audiences themselves, but also interferes with a natural progression that is necessary for newspapers to thrive in an age of digital dominance.

Building a digital foundation

As the popularity of online news aggregators grows, newspapers have had to adapt to a fast-changing media ecosystem in which attention is no longer traded for advertisement revenue but, as media futurist Gerd Leonhard puts it, personal data has become the new oil. Companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, General Electric or IBM have made it clear that data, together with cloud computing and AI, are currently very lucrative areas for business development. The growth of BuzzFeed as a news provider also suggests that a shift from legacy attitudes to an understanding of native online practices such as sharing, virality, ubiquity and connectivity is critical in today’s news media market.

Notably, whether they openly acknowledge it or not, print media has been steadily transitioning to a digital mindset in the background. As the Guardian’s digital-guru-turned-academic, Emily Bell, remarks: for a profession that hates being disrupted, professional newsrooms have experienced their fair share of change in the past couple of decades. Editorial decision-making has become increasingly informed by web metrics and data journalism units are being established to combine scientific rigour and the power of computer processing to offer new, interactive and engaging informational experiences to users. Coders and programmers are sharing bylines with journalists in co-authored pieces.

Artificial Intelligence is permeating the news production workflow. Gamification is used to boost competition among fellow journalists and a system of badges is linked to incentives and bonuses. Companies such as the New York Times are hiring data scientists as Creative Technologists to foresee and develop the technology the newspaper will be using in five years time. Brand-new practices such as sensor journalism – the use of sensors to generate bespoke data-driven news exclusives, especially for hyper local issues such as air or noise pollution – or drone journalism promise to spearhead journalistic innovation.

Put the notebook away: the Phantom is the digital journalist’s best friend. Marco Verch via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

But perhaps the most significant transformation that the shift from print to digital can bring is the development of new business opportunities associated with a digital-only newspaper. Companies such as Storyful verify and curate amateur content and act as intermediaries between content creators and media outlets. Similarly, Newzulu International operates as an online news agency with a community of more than 100,000 professional and citizen journalists around the world. The content is curated by Newzulu’s editors and then licensed to more than 7,000 media outlets worldwide, which enables the company to pay both its editors and contributors.

Does the virtual sphere need a digital-only press?

With news content made openly available by many newspapers, and paywalls that are easy to bypass, instead of paying the cover or subscription price of a daily newspaper, news consumers tend to prefer a Twitter list with their preferred news sources, or a mobile news aggregator app, in order to get a fully personalised news diet.

As the habits of news users change, so does the nature of public deliberation. If Twitter were to count as an indicator for public opinion, the result of the Scottish Referendum would have been quite different – reflecting the overwhelming dominance of the Yes campaign on the platform.

Where you will go to find newspapers. Newseum

Interestingly, as the demographic that supported the Yes campaign on Twitter moves to a position of electoral influence, digital deliberation will also move to a position of economic power that, in a near future, potentially can sway the news agenda and public opinion. When that day comes, perhaps printed newspapers will be an archaeological artefact of the past – and the surviving press will reside in a digital landscape.