Tuesday, 19 May 2009

It ain't gonna happen

I'm getting increasingly puzzled by claims that newspapers are going to die out. They're usually justified on the basis that papers are not as nimble, focused, irreverent, verifiable, etc. as blogs. And the proof of the proposition is that newspapers are currently unprofitable and therefore economically unviable.

This is nonsensical for some very simple reasons. Firstly, people will always want information gathered, filtered, edited and packaged; and newspapers do this for us very effectively.

Aha, this could be done perfectly adequately online, you say. True. But - and this is the main point - people will also always want to consume this information in a flexible way: with regard to all the 'wheres' and 'hows' you can think of. The paper format allows that: on the escalator, up the scaffolding, next to the pool, in the cafe, second-hand at the doctor's waiting room, in the potting shed.

And not only can you read a paper just about anywhere but you can treat it as roughly as you want, short of setting it on fire (though this is useful too at barbecue time). You can even throw it against the wall and jump up and down on it if it makes you angry. Not your Kindle though, which you also wouldn't want to have to bring out at some of the locations above. Electronic media has not and will not achieve this level of usability.

Finally, the economic argument. When businesses in a shrinking sector are loss-making it's extremely rare for that sector to disappear. What usually happens is that the weakest businesses go bust allowing the smaller quantum of demand to be distributed in larger proportions, so restoring profitability.

This has happened in just about every business that's had its viability challenged due to technological change (stationery, film, carriages, bicycles, radio). Where a sector has disappeared it's been because it's had a very narrow, specific focus and the innovation has been able to replace its functionality like-for-like (quills, vellum, celluloid film, transistor valves).

Newspapers fall into the first category.

The precise number of surviving publications will be determined chiefly by how many can be supported profitably on a given quantum of demand. But supply factors could also be influential: from whether newspapers can be made more cheaply (newspapers printing excerpts from blogs for free with the blogger earning from the new traffic generated?) to proprietors happening to have a virtually limitless appetite for losses.

For what it's worth, my prediction would be that we end up in the UK with a couple of broadsheet papers and the same number of tabloids. Their revenue models would be the same as today's: free online and charging for hard copies. They'll be nicely profitable but not as influential as today's press. Separate Sunday editions will disappear (though the brands may live on).

In any event, people should stop anticipating the end of newspapers. It ain't gonna happen.

7 comments:

will said...

Without the Sunday Times, I wouldn't be able to work myself into a froth of righteous indignation every sabbath at the woeful articles about which ocean is the most fashionable right now, and whether small or large intestines are this season's must have.

Newspapers must be preserved, if only to give me a target for my choler

Gaw said...

Good point. I've amended para 4 above to take into account this very therapeutic function of newspapers. Cor, talk about interactivity - dead tree press, read and weep.

Kevin Musgrove said...

You can't imagine how bored I am by people constantly sticking "is this the end of the book?" articles on the fridge at work. I've been told to stop writing "no it fucking isn't" on them as it upsets the troops.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I must get the Guardian Weekly sent out to me again. It was expensive and I usually only had time to do (or otherwise) the Sudoku, but if it went out of business I'd feel a strange loss.

If the next page is blank and then there's the inside of the jacket, then, yes, it probably is the end of the book. Boom boom.

Hey Skipper said...

I think you have missed the fundamental problem, which I can summarize in two words: Craig's List.

A journalist friend of mine said that classified ads provided about 30% of a newspaper's revenue, and that the cost of providing them was essentially covered by subscription revenue.

You are right in that newspapers will not go away, but it is hard to see how they can survive a gut shot to the bottom line in anything like their current form.

Gaw said...

Skipper, I believe this point applies more to the local press, much of which is surely doomed. However, the national press over here doesn't earn much from classified ads.

In any event, my guess is that the number of national titles shrinks by two-thirds, which seems a pretty drastic shrinkage. But we'd still be left with an influential and mainstream national press, for better or worse, and this is my main point.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Left to its own devices much local press wouldn't be doomed. Unfortunately, owned as they are by national combines that have flagship metropolitan titles that lose money like friends on a tightrope they are fucked.