As the candle of 2011 guttered in the swirling wind of 2012, another flame was close to being extinguished; in the last twelve months, sales of Britain’s main dailies fell by 6.75%. The start of the new millennium was the beginning of the end for the written press, and ever since, it has been dying a slow and inevitable death. Partly as a result of the advent of online and citizen journalism, partly environmental concerns, old media is on the way out. Gone are the glory days of Gutenberg; Twitter and sites like this very one have ushered in a new age of journalism. The unmistakable scent of newspaper ink has been superseded by the characterless Blackberry and iPad.
It’s a bit of a no brainer isn’t it? On the one hand you have the cumbersome, barely navigable newspaper that once printed, is little more than a relic; on the other, you have the dynamic device, constantly changing, constantly updating. Papers these days are more like a roundup of what the web and Twitter informed me of yesterday. I hand the shopkeeper my pile of coppers and in return he gives me a history book; it’s like a test and of course I pass every time because everything that is apparently ‘news’, I already know about.
I wouldn’t say I am old-fashioned but I have a soft spot for the printed press. It’s nostalgia more than anything: fond memories of lazily spent Sundays with piles of papers littering the floor characterise my childhood. While my dad peruses the Business Section (at the age of eight, it’s all just too many words and too few pictures for me), I feast my eyes on the new edition of ‘The Funday Times’. I grew up with papers in my house: they became part of the furniture, often a reminder that we had passed from one day to the next.
Newspapers are historical artefacts, and indeed famous headlines have a place in history themselves: ‘Gotcha’, ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ and ‘If Labour get in today will the last one out of Britain please switch off the light?’, to name but a few. The physical existence of a newspaper is somewhat of a time capsule, a concrete and constant reminder of what has happened. On the 8th May 1945, The Daily Mail declared in emphatic fashion, ‘VE DAY – IT’S ALL OVER’. Similarly, in 2008, The New York Times’ headline read in bold, simply, ‘OBAMA’. How can the cacophony of 140 short burst characters rival the simplicity and impact of the newspaper headline? Gay Talese’s book, The Kingdom and the Power aptly describes the newspaper as ‘a barometer of society, an assessor of its sanity, necessary proof of the earth’s existence’. It is indicative of the paper’s place in society that Julian Assange chose to release the Wikileaks cables through The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian, aware that the impact of indelible newspaper ink would live longer in the memory than the hazy and ever-changing cloud of online media.
And yet, the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen the demise of the newspaper. In the last twelve years, The Sun’s daily sales figures have dropped by a million; The Daily Telegraph is selling half a million papers fewer than in 2000 and The Independent is barely able to shift 100,000 copies. In fact, in the last twelve years, not one national daily paper has improved its sales figures. The printed press is slowly, but very surely edging towards a precipice. Then what should we do? Give up? Accept that the newspaper is a relic of a bygone era, better suited to the British Museum than the local newsagent?
The simple answer, for me anyway, is no. We devour new these days. In two minutes, Twitter will update me of a thousand new events occurring, each reported on as briefly (no more than 140 characters) than the last. The advent of online journalism has led to the bizarre phenomenon in which as soon as something happens, it has already been tweeted or blogged about. Newspapers, on the other hand, provide reason, reflection and common sense. And for all the doom and gloom I’ve been prophesising, things aren’t all that bad. The Saint continues to raise revenues from advertising sales as local businesses fight for their name to appear in the latest issue. If they believe there’s still hope for the printed press, so must we. So, let’s preserve the printed press, and not give up just yet.