We can’t save newspapers but we must fight to save journalism

In this, my final blog for IPSO, I am making a call to arms. I am asking all those who believe that journalism is the handmaiden to democracy – all publishers, editors and journalists – to work together to preserve and enhance the journalistic mission.

I love newspapers, the look of them, the feel of them, the smell of them, even the inky residue they leave on my hands. 

As the former owner of The Independent, Tony O’Reilly, liked to say, they are a perfect form of browser. Readers are able to see pictures and read stories they would never have sought in the first place. 

Unlike me, however, Tony couldn’t imagine a world without papers. By the turn of this century, I accepted that the days of the printed press were numbered. Ever since, little by little, they have been drifting towards oblivion. 

On Monday, during my first lecture of the new term at City, University of London, I asked the cohort of 300 post-grad students how many of them had bought a newspaper that morning. Answer: three. 

I then asked how many had read a newspaper online that day. Up went a forest of hands, maybe as many as 90% of them. Finally, I asked how many had paid to do so. Result: no more than about 20. (I’ll come back to the implications of that in a moment). 

I then presented the students with figures about the sale of Britain’s London-based national newspapers that will surely convince all but the most romantic among us that papers are in their death throes. 

In August 2017, the combined average circulation of the daily titles was 5.9million. In 2000, it was 12.7million. That is a fall of 54.4%. Worse still was the comparison for the Sundays, down from 13.5million copies to 5.2million, a drop of 61.6%. 

Yet, as everyone knows, the numbers of people reading those same newspapers’ websites is far, far greater than at any time in their history. The audience has moved online and the numbers are astonishing. 

Consider the latest available figures for daily browsers. Mail Online: 14.1million; The Guardian: 10million; Trinity Mirror’s group total: 9.7million, of which 5million are the Mirror titles; The Independent: 6.5million; The Sun: 5.3million; Telegraph: 4million; Express: 2.6million; Metro: 2.3million. 

In Britain’s cities and towns, thousands of people now learn what’s happening in their locality by clicking on to newspaper websites. Why would they buy the ink-on-dead-wood product when they can get news for free on screen? 

But news-gathering and news transmission costs money, and publishers cannot raise enough digital revenue to fund journalism. In spite of the large audiences, the online advertising take is only a fraction of that formerly gained in print. 

Worse still, many advertisers have turned their backs on newspaper websites altogether. They prefer to find consumers through other internet routes. 

Blaming the digital revolution for the decline of newsprint is as silly as blaming electricity for the demise of steam trains. It’s just how it is. Throughout history, people have taken advantage of technological changes that have been lamented at the moment of their introduction. 

So, however sad I feel about the end of newsprint, I grasp the reality of the situation. I now regard fighting to save newspapers as altogether less important than the most important battle of all: to save journalism. 

I concede that we who used to be sanguine about the effects of digital disruption were far too blasé by forecasting that a wonderful new form of journalism would emerge in an online-only world. 

Despite decreased funding, we tended to imagine that there would be enough money to support the kind of journalism that makes our trade so important to society. 

By which, I mean the holding-power-to-account kind, the comfort-the-afflicted-afflict-the-comfortable kind, the inform-educate-interpret kind. 

To do all that properly – to dig and delve, to explain and analyse, to examine and investigate – takes a range of skills. That’s why trained, professional journalists exercising knowledge, judgment and, yes, ethics, count. It’s why our trade is so important. 

The problem is that those professionals are getting fewer by the day because the journalistic community across the country is contracting at an alarming rate. 

Every publisher, without exception, has had to reduce newsroom staffing because of commercial pressures. Sure, there have been arguments about whether or not some of the cuts are justified in every case. 

But let’s put that debate to one side and look instead at the big picture. What is indisputable is that the business model on which every newspaper has been based since at least 1855 has been wrecked by the flight of advertising to the net. 

The end of that traditional journalistic funding mechanism has produced a crisis that no alternative innovation, thus far, has overcome. 

Many hyperlocal online start-ups, once thought to be a viable replacement for cash-strapped local papers, have come and gone. Idealistic founders have found it impossible to attract enough advertising revenue. 

Even those that have managed to keep going have failed to offer the kind of comprehensive news coverage which has been the hallmark of local papers. Young enthusiasts have worked themselves into the ground. 

Although larger national and international start-ups, such as BuzzFeed and Vice Media, have made some headway in Britain, they have yet to build public profiles that impinge on the national conversation. 

Blogging sites, like Guido Fawkes, ConservativeHome and The Canary, engage political nerds. But they are hardly replacements for the newspapers they both criticise and, to be honest, live off. 

Crowd-funding has not worked. Philanthropy has been thin on the ground, although there have been some successes (such as the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism). 

Paywalls at local level have been tried and failed. At national level, the results have been patchy. At present, the jury is out on whether charging for access can produce enough income to sustain journalistic output. 

What is crystal clear is that the future of journalism depends on publishers securing a guaranteed form of income. And the best hope lies in recouping money from the two major Silicon Valley giants, Google and Facebook, which use newspaper journalistic content while attracting a huge share of available advertising.   

According to a December 2016 report by OC&C Strategy Consultants, the two companies will take a 71% share of the total ad market by 2020. It will amount to £4.1billion, more than the total value of the UK’s current display advertising. 

It is vital that Google and Facebook are persuaded of the benefits of sharing some of their profits with established news providers. That’s why I support the Press Gazette’s Duopoly campaign

I can accept the loss of newspapers (just about). What I cannot countenance is the loss of the journalism they have provided for 160 years and more. 

Time is running out and we – meaning publishers, editors, journalists and politicians – must unify to save journalism. 

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*