Bill Hagerty on the press

The future is read, but not necessarily in newspapers

The compact war of words continues. Journalists themselves are obsessed with the merits and otherwise of big and small.
The Guardian is taking the middle road at considerable expense, while
The Daily Telegraph waits anxiously to see if the Barclay Brothers believe that size does matter after all. And now some long-term readers of
The Times are apparently so horrified by their paper's decision to publish only in compact form that they may seriously be considering one-way trips to Beachy Head.

The compact war of words continues. Journalists themselves are obsessed with the merits and otherwise of big and small. The Guardian is taking the middle road at considerable expense, while The Daily Telegraph waits anxiously to see if the Barclay Brothers believe that size does matter after all. And now some long-term readers of The Times are apparently so horrified by their paper's decision to publish only in compact form that they may seriously be considering one-way trips to Beachy Head.

What a to-do. But, without wishing further to depress print journalists and disgruntled readers of the scaled-down Times, I must point out that it could have been worse. What if The Times, and The Independent come to that - after all, the most radical development in the industry since the introduction of colour started here - were to dispense with paper altogether? What if the incredible shrinking newspaper shrank totally out of sight?

Fanciful? Not according to experienced newspapermen such as Arthur Sulzberger Jr, publisher of The New York Times, who recently told me: "It is the print edition of The Times that is the driving force at the moment, but we can envisage it vanishing - one day there were tablets and the next day there weren't."

So farewell, compact, and welcome to the web, where NYTimes.com is the world's leading and most profitable newspaper site. Unlike those in this country so far, it makes a great deal of money out of advertising and charging for information; the Times' electronic edition, an exact reproduction of the day's paper, can be downloaded to computers worldwide at 4.30am US Eastern time.

The Americans may be ahead of the game, but there are plenty here who believe they have seen the future and know that it works. Andrew Gowers, editor of the Financial Times, says that he doesn't care whether readers get his paper in print or online and that the web is now an integral part of the FT editorial operation. The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger believes that "if I had to be judged by one thing, it would be the internet and how we have ... extended our global reach and laid down our future positioning".

The Daily Mail, arriving late at a party where this newspaper and others had already cut themselves a slice of the cake, is pouring resources into the web and the company's enthusiasm has washed way beyond the confines of Kensington. In a recent speech, Keith Perch, managing director of Northcliffe Electronic Publishing, reported that a survey had shown that 33 per cent of those getting their Associated news fix from the web never look at one of the company's newspapers. His bullish view was justified by the knowledge that his operation had gone from costing £12m a year into modest profit in just four years.

The road to electronic Mount Olympus will be strewn with obstacles and - echoes of accusations about "tabloidisation" - will need to be negotiated especially carefully if journalistic standards are to be maintained. But even if many of us will run out before the road does, it will eventually, irrevocably lead to the absolutely paper-free paper. As the wise Mr Sulzberger, who would print the news on T-shirts if there were a demand, says: "That we do it on paper is great as long as people care for it on paper. But the minute they don't, well that's all right too."

The end of the Odone player

Those suffering from election fatigue have at least been able to find a pick-me-up in the shape of the knockabout goings-on at our two most prominent political weeklies. No sooner had Boris Johnson paid penance for a Spectator editorial that upset sensitive souls in Liverpool than the New Statesman donned red nose and funny hat to provide more media light relief.

The resignation of deputy editor Cristina Odone was accompanied by tales of a spat with Statesman editor Peter Wilby over an NS cover depicting Tony Blair as Stalin. Wilby refuted this in a spirited leading article that promised it was giving readers "the unvarnished truth".

Meanwhile, a fresh rumour of an imminent change of NS editor circulated like rushing blood. Previously gossip had suggested that the political editor, John Kampfner, was driving a removal van up and down outside Wilby's office; now former foreign secretary Robin Cook was tipped to take over.

Wilby, a philosophical fellow not given proper credit for producing a constantly combative NS despite severe budgetary restrictions, takes it all with aplomb. He says he's had no indication that chairman Geoffrey Robinson is about to remove him, but adds, "If he was approaching other people, I don't suppose he'd tell me."

My unvarnished opinion is that Robinson would be foolish to join the long list of proprietors that believed a change of editor would provide an instant panacea for their publication's ills.

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