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Newspapers, printing, the future – it’s rosy (but not as we know it)

I have been involved in the newspaper industry since I was about 20 – that’s, on and off, 3o plus years. When I got a job in what was then known as Fleet Street (even though the paper I worked at, the Financial Times, was beyond that area, up near St Paul’s cathedral) there was a printing plant and shop in the basement and sub-basement. The FT was still, and this was the mid to late 1980s, being set letterpress. I subbed copy using a typewriter and the copy was then Linotyped by another person, who was a member of a separate Trade Union and, quite possibly, used a fictitious name, such as Mickey Mouse. Abuse was rampant; I remember being told by my senior colleagues how one year there was a strike and the journos managed to get the management to up wages by some staggering 30 per cent; or was it more?

Daily Telegraph
Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street, London, early 1990s. [copyright John Pitt]
Then came computer-setting; the unions were broken by a bloke called Eddie Shah in London who started up a newspaper called Today; which eventually led to Rupert Murdoch taking the Times/Sunday Times/News of  the World and Sun to Wapping. I have an old  colleague who was on the picket line there. It was not a happy time. Murdoch won.

But that is now history. Very recent history. My history. Now the newspaper business, indeed printing on paper, faces its greatest battle. One which it will lose. Just as calligraphers on vellum lost to Guttenberg; just as Smiths Corolla typewriters lost out to IBM.

This blog is inspired by an article by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books. This is the link – but I doubt if you will be able to access it as it is for subscribers only.

Assuming you can’t, or can’t be bothered, and without permission from LRB, these are the guts of the piece:

“A recent OECD report, The Evolution of News and the Internet, makes the picture clear.[*] Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 per cent of its readers; the UK industry lost 22 per cent. Since then, the speed of the downturn has increased. In the last 12 months alone, seven broadsheet titles in the UK have seen their sales decline by more than 10 per cent. In the US, in the first six months of this year, the Chicago Tribune lost 9.8 per cent of its remaining readers, and the Los Angeles Times 14.7 per cent…

“The global flagship of serious journalism, the New York Times, lost $74.5 million in the quarter to March 2009, and accepted an injection of $250 million in cash from the Mexican telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim; it emerged that the paper was carrying $1.3 billion in accumulated debt. And it is one of the healthier US newspaper companies: the Tribune group, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, had already gone bankrupt. In the UK, Times Newspapers lost £87.7 million in the year to June 2009, having lost £50.2 million in the previous year. These figures are not, by industry standards, especially bad. It was mayhem out there…

“A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’ Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing…

“So this, I think, is the future of newspapers. Their cost base will force them to junk their print editions. (I know some people would like a luxury product, only-for-nostalgics print version, but it’s not clear to me how the economics of that would be made to work.)…”

If you have got this far, he is absolutely right. Where I live a man drives round in a clapped out Toyota Hiace at 6am each morning and throws out a cling-film wrapped newspaper onto my driveway. Where’s the economics in that?

Instead I can turn on my iPad and source news from all over the world. The fact that I don’t have an iPad is no impediment. One day I will. And then I will not need print anymore. The printing presses can go; the distribution vans can go; the blokes who operate the printing presses will go; and the bloke who drives the battered Toyota? Well, he’ll be on his iPad at 6am…

It’s only a matter of time – certainly before the next decade is out. Maybe 5 years.

This is probably what those calligraphers felt like when they heard about printing from movable type. “It’ll never take on,” they scorned.

Let us not bury our heads. Let us take it on.

3 replies on “Newspapers, printing, the future – it’s rosy (but not as we know it)”

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