I am as enthusiastic as the next man about the internet, possibly more so, but all this apocalyptic talk about the imminent demise of newspapers is beginning to get me down. Of course I cannot prove that papers will be around in 20 years, any more than the soothsayers can prove that they will not be, so one is reduced to making a rather lame appeal to common sense. Is it really likely that the ingrained habit of buying a daily newspaper - still carried out by more than 12 million people in this country - will disappear in so short a period of time?
If you cannot accept that, at least take a fair look at the statistics. It is often stated bluntly that newspaper circulation is in free fall. Certainly most newspapers (this one happens to be an exception) are selling fewer copies than they were two or three years ago. But if one goes back 10 or 20 years the comparison is not totally bleak.
Let us set aside the fact that the way in which newspaper circulation is calculated has slightly changed over the years. Twenty years ago - I am looking at the figures for February 1986 - the three daily red-tops sold 8.6 million copies a day. In February 1996 the Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Star had a combined daily circulation of 7.26 million copies. In February this year the sale was 5.6 million. That represents quite a decline, and one that was plainly underway before the internet could have had any effect. Over 20 years the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star have lost almost half their sales, and the Sun about a quarter.
In the middle market, the Daily Express has plummeted over the past 20 years, while the Daily Mail has risen from about 1.8 million copies a day in February 1986 to just over 2.4 million copies today. Nearly all that increase took place during the 1990s. The combined sale of these two titles has fallen from 3.69 million in 1986 to 3.27 million in 2006. The Daily Express has suffered a near catastrophe, while the Daily Mail has had an enormous boost.
The size of the so-called quality market has actually increased over the past 20 years. I am slightly cheating, though, because in February 1986 The Independent did not exist. The Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian and the Financial Times together sold about 2.4 million copies. Ten years later that figure had risen to just over 2.7 million. In February this year these titles sold 2.66 million copies. This is a slightly dodgy figure, boosted by the increasing foreign sales of the Financial Times and, over the 20-year period, by the advent of The Independent. Certainly the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph have lost sales over 20 years, but not the Times. All in all, though, the quality market has not fared badly.
I do not want to be accused of offering a panglossian interpretation. Plainly a revolution is underway. People are turning more and more to the internet, and advertisers are recognising this. Last year, while most newspapers were experiencing a decline in advertising revenue, online advertising leapt by more than 50 per cent from its 2004 levels. It is likely to overtake national newspaper advertising this year or the next. As I wrote recently, newspapers will have to adjust themselves to a declining share of an expanding revenue base.
Millions of people will nonetheless go on reading newspapers - I promise. If they are to thrive, newspapers will have to adjust to the new economic climate in which they find themselves, and work out what they can do better than the internet.
At the same time they will have to produce better online versions of themselves. None of them, with the possible exception of the Guardian, has adapted particularly successfully to the internet because they have not properly grasped that a new medium needs a different sort of journalism.
But the older sort of journalism - printed on the marvellously convenient bundles of newsprint that you can take into the lavatory or on the train - will continue to appeal to millions of people. The future may look bleak for some individual titles but not for the whole industry. There is no cause for despair!
Shame on those who committed this unjustified act of intrusion
On 3 January, Katherine Ward jumped to her death from a hotel in South Kensington. She was a 52-year-old, American-born lawyer who, at the time of her death, worked for Rolls-Royce. A photographer called Jon Bushell took a picture of her as she fell. This was published by the Sun, the Times and the London Evening Standard.
Their defence, I am sure, would be that this was a news event, and it is the function of newspapers to report what happens. Ms Ward had chosen to commit suicide in public. Nonetheless, the majority of newspapers took a different view and decided, for reasons of taste, not to carry the picture.
A friend of Katherine Ward's called Marina Palomba complained to the Press Complaints Commission, arguing that Clause 5 of the code (intrusion into grief and shock) had been breached. Her complaint was directed at the Evening Standard. It had named Ms Ward while carrying the picture of her falling to her death, circling her body. Ms Palomba was upset that the paper should have run the photograph before checking whether the family had been informed about the incident.
On Friday the Press Complaints Commission delivered its judgment. Ms Palombo's complaint was not upheld. The PCC did not believe that Clause 5 had been breached. It added that "matters of taste and decency fall outside the terms of the code of practice". The PCC was concerned, however, that the Evening Standard had made no effort to confirm that Ms Ward's family had been informed of her death. As it happens, they live in America, and could not have seen the paper, but the Standard could not have been certain that this was the case.
What are we to make of all this? Ms Palombo and other friends of Ms Ward clearly regard this as another PCC stitch-up. She remarks bitingly that between January and September 2005 the PCC received 2,719 complaints, of which only five were upheld. Yet it seems arguable that on a strict interpretation Clause 5 was not breached, though it was surely reckless to run the picture without being certain that the family knew. Matters of taste and decency apparently do fall outside the PCC's remit.
Nonetheless, I am certain that most decent people would agree that the three newspapers were wrong to carry this photograph. When I saw it in the Times, my blood froze; there was no conceivable public interest in carrying it. By contrast, a defence might be made of those newspapers which controversially ran an appalling photograph of a man jumping from one of the towers of the World Trade Center because it highlighted an act of terrorism.
Ms Ward's death highlighted nothing, save her own despair. The picture was not so much an intrusion into her friends', or even her family's grief, as into her private world. We should be allowed to die in peace. The newspapers that elected not to publish this photograph showed much more human feeling than the three that did.Reuse content