Monday, March 14, 2011

Print: Not Dead Yet

My dear X, some grave news: Print is dead. Year on year, circulation for The Times has fallen 14%; The Guardian 12%. At the height the recession, The New York Times went as far as to threaten to shut down its lead-weight stablemate The Boston Globe. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer simply went online to save money. Warren Buffett has stated that he wouldn’t buy a newspaper ‘at any price’.

At first glance, then, the newspaper has no future, but further investigation reveals this notion to be preposterous. Print is being only being told it’s dying by those who would profit from its demise – it’s like the old man in Monty Python who’s forced onto the wagon for the deceased against his will: “I’m not dead! I’m getting better!” “No, you’re not – you’ll be stone dead in a moment.”

Print media has survived as far not only the birth of radio and television, but the creation of the 24-hour news cycle in the guise of CNN – a model which has been replicated, politicised and injected with opinion and commentary. And, in some guise, it will make bedfellows with the internet too, for the web is a marvellous yet flawed beast.

The internet, in cooperation with the news networks, has in making information so readily available created an insatiable appetite for more and more ‘news’, which new media has to and feels to a desire to feed. As a consequence, we have witnessed the watering-down and generalisation of news into banality, as endless amounts of airtime and webspace are filled through the endless repetition of held assumptions, boring talking points and baseless but loudly spoken opinions.

Print can capitalise on this serious problem which is detrimental to journalism and is deteriorating slowly the power and authority of hard news like a wasting disease. Newspapers and journals must counter hour after hour of recycled garbage with considered analysis and accurate and thoughtful reportage.

Likewise, print must provide a home for those who wish to escape from said banal generality, to find stories or opinions which speak to their community or special interest. With this in mind, one of the areas in which print media can continue to thrive is amongst the student population, in its array of specialist newspapers and magazines produced by students, for students, about students.

Within the University of London, student newspapers are not only blossoming, but new publications are being created at institutions which previously did not have a paper to call their own. Heythrop College has seen the establishment of The Lion, which now has a healthy print run of 1,000 copies. Moreover, The Founder at Royal Holloway was created in 2006 through private funds to operate in competition with the existing magazine The Orbital.

On our own pages, student contributors have over the course of the past year begun to re-engage with the pressing issues facing the community. Debate has raged over the necessity and speed of cuts, and the damage the government’s actions will inflict upon not just universities but the fate of ambitious college students too. People have also written in to directly challenge and hold to account their own leadership, which has included several calls on the President of ULU to abdicate.

Recent circumstances have driven students back toward print: the government’s austerity measures, the radicalisation of students and the ferment on the Arab street has played into the hands of London’s editors and contributors, as our student leaders and those they represent have become recognised as part of the main for the first time in a generation. Student print media, therefore, is anything but dead.

All is not lost for national newspapers either. The gradual and successful expansion of the i demonstrates what can be achieved through attempts to speak to a niche – in this instance commuters, rightly dissatisfied with the Metro, looking for a condensed, quality, cheap newssheet.  

Print, then, is not dead yet, and there is evidence to suggest that it will find its place alongside the internet and existing new media. But it would do our national publishers some good if they learnt a little something from the student model – a most excellent example of the success of print in a multimedia age.

An edited version appears in London Student, entitled “Print is not dead - long live print,” March 14, 2011.