On Christmas Eve, until very recently, the national newspaper newsroom was a place of silence – as disconnected from the seasonal excitement of the outside world as that bear’s cave in the John Lewis advert. The press was traditionally forced into a brief period of hibernation by the knowledge that no newsagents would be open on Christmas Day to sell its publications.
Not any longer, of course. Christmas Eve is just another news day when readers expect their favourite papers to be continually updating websites, apps and Twitter accounts. Thanks to the internet, the Christmas holiday arrangements of printers, lorry drivers and paper boys and girls are an irrelevance.
But that’s no reason for newspaper proprietors to be raising their wine glasses in toasts of thanks. Now they must staff the newsroom throughout the Christmas period, while suffering a loss of revenue from print editions, which remain the core sources of income for all major titles. Yes, here we are on the verge of 2014 and print is still bringing in most of the money.
The wisest of sages had always known that the death of print would be a slow process. When I interviewed Bill Gates in New York in March 2006 he was extremely cautious in writing off the old medium, even at a time when the soothsayers of Silicon Valley were predicting the immediate demise of the press. “I’m sure it will be more than 50 years when somebody is still printing a newspaper and taking it to someone, somewhere,” he said.
He was making this observation in full knowledge that prototype portable tablets were at that moment being developed in the labs. “The tablet is the place where it can all come together,” he told me. “I see the person with that very, very thin – we don’t have it yet today – very inexpensive, high bandwidth, wireless device… where a lot of the print and video consumption will take place.” It was almost exactly four years later that the Apple iPad made its debut.
This Christmas there will inevitably be another surge in tablet ownership, with the lightweight iPad Air and Microsoft’s own Surface 2 driving sales. But there is a growing realisation that these devices are not in themselves the salvation of the commercial news industry that some expected. Most of those downloading newspaper apps are simply traditional print newspaper buyers who are adapting their reading habits to modern technology. Many younger readers see no more reason to pay for a news app than for a printed paper – and prefer to discover stories via social media sources.
The parlous position of news brands remains. Especially so in the UK where the BBC’s prodigious output of high-quality written journalism continues to undermine the commercial market (I don’t accept the BBC’s claim that the global demise of print media shows that this is not a BBC issue).
The final publication of the Liverpool Post last week, illustrated with two buglers sounding the “Last Post” farewell against a silhouette of the Liver Building, was a poignant signal of the future fate of other British news institutions. This was the most high-profile casualty from the digital revolution and, in a moving elegy, editor Mark Thomas reflected on how the paper’s first edition covered the assault on Sevastopol in the Crimean War, 158 years ago.
This has also been the year when Lloyd’s List, the world’s oldest continuously published newspaper, abandoned print – a 280-year old tradition that began with notices being pinned to the walls of London coffee houses. While Lloyd’s List will continue to report the global shipping market in digital formats, I have a strong feeling that 2014 will be far bloodier than 2013 in terms of traditional news media closures.
And yet, as Bill Gates suggested, there is resilience in the print medium. It’s not just the continued demand for the format in markets such as India – which continues to attract the interest of British-based publishers with global ambitions. There is also a hunger for print in unlikely sources, which are giving the medium a new cachet.
The geeks of Silicon Roundabout (London’s digital tech hub) have launched Tech City News, a new print magazine with an initial run of 10,000 copies. “Paper is the new second screen,” declares editor Alex Wood, who claims the format allows readers to “unplug, sit back and relax”. Pitchfork, the favourite online music resource of hipsters, has also moved belatedly into ink. Meanwhile The Guardian, previously the most vocal digital evangelist among British newspapers, has recently shown renewed sympathy for its physical product and is experimenting with a new 24-page tabloid of “long good reads” distributed via its trendy East London coffee shop.
Print still has a future in 2014 but only in a symbiotic relationship with a digital product – and only if the publisher offers premium content.