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Stop press

Stop press

Rampant inflation may claim an unlikely victim – the daily newspaper

Transcript

In the past week or so, two people running newspaper businesses in the UK have told me the same thing – that the price of publishing a print newspaper is going to double in 2022, i.e. newsprint prices are rising and the costs of distribution trucking the papers are on the up too.

And at the same time newspaper advertising is heading down, it’s always among the first things to take a hit when growth slows. And at the same time the sale of weekday newspapers in particular has been on a downward trend for a good while and, as we tip towards a recession in the UK, what people have seen at Netflix – the fact that people are switching off their subscriptions is making people concerned about people switching off their subscriptions to newspapers too. When you stand back, all of this points to an historic change in the landscape of news in the year to come: companies are going to stop printing papers. Not all companies, nor all papers. Weekend papers are holding up; older readers still have the habit. 

But daily newspapers. Newspapers sold at newsstands. Newspapers trucked long distances. They’re all becoming increasingly uneconomic. 

And, ask yourself, what will businesses do when printing a newspaper becomes either a drag on profits or a downright loss? So, for example, will the FT choose to keep printing its weekend edition, but decide to stop printing daily, given that the vast majority of its subscribers are digital? Ditto, the New York Times – will it still print the daily newspaper internationally, when it’s got by far the largest number of its subscribers paying for digital? Will the Evening Standard, which has already been printing fewer copies in order to staunch losses, finally do what it’s been discussing for a while and stop printing altogether? Likewise, the Express

And then if you game that out – if those papers do stop printing daily – then the economics for the ones that continue just get tougher. Because the same distribution costs are shared between a smaller group of publishers. And meanwhile the retailers, who long ago fell out of love with stocking newspapers, have even less incentive to give them a good showing in their stores. What then for the economics of the weekday newspaper sales of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Times? What, in particular, for the Sun, once Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper, which used to publish its circulation numbers as a proof of power, like a weightlifter boasting how much he could benchpress, but now coyly declines to say how far its daily circulation has fallen.

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to consider what happens next. What happens when daily newspapers stop the presses, when what happened to local and regional newspapers happens to national ones, when we move, more rapidly than we probably expect, to a world of “all the news that’s fit to pixel”.

If you’re under 35, you might say: “oh my goodness, who knew? – I didn’t realise they were still printing papers”. Or if you’ve seethed at Fleet Street for years, you might think: “Woohoo – the corrupt mainstream media is getting its comeuppance.”

But with a step-change decline in print will come a fundamental change in the idea of “the press”, as both a check and a commentary on the powerful. So I think: beware what’s coming.

The difference between news and a newspaper is like the difference between a footballer and a team. You may love one; you’re loyal to the other. Mo Salah stands out, he’s what you look for; Liverpool though, over the years, stands for something, it’s what you believe in and, more or less, part of who you are. 

Print is the expression of a newspaper’s character. The choice of stories on the front page, the splash, the font size, the picture choice, the masthead strap – or lack of one. And likewise the choice of which stories run inside and where, right-hand pages (more prominent) or left ones (less so), page leads or basements, above the fold or below. And the choice of fonts, the graphic design, the picture shape and layout. All of these things signal to the reader not just what the newsroom knows each day, but what it thinks of what it knows: its news judgement, displayed in a way that is visible, physical and permanent.

It’s much, much harder to capture the point of view of a newsroom on a screen. Screen sizes are different; most people don’t come to stories via a newsroom’s website anyway, but via social media or an aggregator like Apple, so they’ve no sense of its hierarchy of news. And anyway, even if you come to a website or an app that’s designed to telegraph news values, the running order is always changing. In other ways, character is easily commoditised.

Within the newspaper companies, it’s going to be bloody. There’s going to have to be cost-cutting, again, and with it, criticism of digital diversification that was expensive and hasn’t worked. (Exhibit A, I’d suggest, the blame game spilling out of NewsCorp over the enormous cost of launching TalkTV and the tiny audiences for Piers Morgan’s show so far.)

It’s also going to change the power of the press, once and for all.

Take Partygate. It’s been a story where newspapers have shown their colours. Some have exposed and lambasted Boris Johnson; others have cosied up to him. For what it’s worth, I think the challenger press is right, that’s what the Fourth Estate is for; and the client journalism makes me cringe. You may disagree. But that’s not my point. The way in which newspapers express their attitude and exert their influence is the front page, the run of pages inside, the double page spreads: what will happen when they’re gone?

The answer, I fear, is a public square where the powerful find it increasingly easy to mark their own homework. Here’s why. It will be noisier, more fragmented and self-validating. Companies will increasingly commission content, pay influencers to buy eyeballs and then claim legitimacy in a vast audience; politicians will cite favourable views, backed by meaningless or misleading social media numbers, or, as Donald Trump has shown them, simply be their own unmediated media. 

The visible players of the old mainstream media will be fewer in number with smaller audiences, but, ironically, more of a say. There’ll be fewer newspapers to see, but they’ll still claim to speak for the public. Likewise, the TV and radio broadcasters, even as their audiences decline, will have more of a grip on the news agenda. (They may not wish for it, as they’ll be under even more scrutiny and blamed, every which way, in political contests and the culture wars. And, incidentally, pity the poor BBC Today programme producer who, when the time inevitably comes when the 6:40 and 7:40am segments dedicated to “The Papers” is replaced by a slot on “Opinion” or “Voices” and she or he has to choose whose Twitter thread, Instagram post, TikTok video or which columnist’s op-ed to privilege with public airtime.)

This isn’t meant to sound like a lament for the lost days of print. I chose to leave a life in traditional media to start a new, digital newsroom. For us at Tortoise, the truth is that it’s exciting – there’s a world of new ways to investigate, report and try to make sense of the world. It is going to be creative. We’re going to need to think of ways to redefine the splash, the scoop, the sidebar. The shape of the news story itself – defined for years by the article – is up for grabs. 

But the 2022 energy shock, the cost of living crisis and likely recession is going to have some unlikely victims. One of them, I suspect, is going to be the idea of the daily papers. Things change slowly, then quickly. And when this story ends, it won’t just be a media business story or a change in the working lives of journalists. It’s going to play out in politics, corporate PR, celebrity and power.