31 March 2016
Nobody knows anything
The screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, The Princess Bride) wrote one of the essential books on Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Among its many words of wisdom about how movies actually work, the most celebrated are those that express what he calls "the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry" -
NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING
Attending a debate on the future of newspapers at City University yesterday, Goldman's words came to me. In the world of digital news that now faces us, nobody knows anything.
Independent Digital front pages, from http://edition.independent.co.uk
Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood may lurch from triumph to disaster to further disaster with little idea of what is going to succeed, yet it continues to produce the occasional great or commercially successful film, and it has not collapsed as a business. But it lives in a constant state of anxiety, because its hopes are all based around the whims of a mercurial audience. After centuries of producing news in a form that people would regularly buy into, the news industry is now facing a world in which it cannot say from one year to the next what model is going to work, or whether there ever will be the same stability on which the newspaper business subsisted for so long.
The debate was entitled "Newsprint - it ain't over yet!" (originally it was billed as the less confident "Is print dead?") and was organised by City University and the Media Society. Chaired by Professor Roy Greenslade of City University and Guardian Media, the guest speakers were Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, Christian Broughton, Editor of the Independent Digital and Jane Singer, Professor of Journalism Innovation at City University. Sadly, Alison Phillips, editor of the UK's latest national newspaper, The New Day, was advertised but not available on the day.
It was an interesting debate, if somewhat skewed towards the view of journalists rather than readers, inevitably given the speakers and the audience of journalism students and media professionals. The current crises were all addressed - the challenges of making digital pay, the supposed threat of the BBC towards regional newspapers, the challenge of ad-blocking software to business models, what jobs are there for today's journalism students? - and the generally expressed fears of who will hold governments to account in a world without newspapers and traditional investigative journalism.
The two speakers from news organisations spoke confidently about their latest business models. The Independent closed its print edition on 26 March, but has strongly asserted the power of its digital, with a website that is profitable, and the newly-launched daily digital edition with front-page layout looking for all the world like the print edition still existed (no doubt to comfort former subscribers to the print version who they hope will move over to the digital). The Times and Sunday Times have announced that they are moving away from a rolling digital news model (the "flim-flam of passing news" in Baxter's words) to offer a joint digital news package in timed editions (9am, midday and 5pm), just like a print newspaper.
The debate at City University, with (L-R) Christian Broughton, Jane Singer, Roy Greenslade and Sarah Baxter
So the latest digital news models are looking towards mimicking the solidity of print. This may comfort the traditionalist buyers, and is an acknowledgment of the power of brand and the strength of print in making a news story part of the public agenda. But that's just today's strategy. Who can say if they will still be operational five years from now, or even a year from now? Other great ideas for ensuring long-term stability will follow soon enough, while others will pursue their own plans. Perhaps the Blendle model of pay-per-article, as developed in the Netherlands, will prove successful. Perhaps philanthropic funding models that work in the USA can be transported here. Perhaps the paid-for model adopted by The Times offers the only security. Perhaps going free but reaching out to as many millions as possible is what will work. Perhaps print will endure far longer than we expect, valued by an 'elite' audience if not the majority.
The truth is, nobody knows. This is a huge challenge for the British Library, which has a mission to preserve the UK's news. Such archiving thrives on consistency of output, something which print newspapers have long provided, with their uniformity of format and regularity of publication. The days of certainty are over for news archiving as they are for news publication. We will have to keep reinventing policies and procedures, just to keep up. It certainly seems unlikely that we will ever return to the reliability of the past. Sarah Baxter said that we are in a transitional phase of news production, but perhaps it is always going to be a transitional phase.
News publication in the future looks to be condemned to uncertainty, flitting from one platform to another, from one business model to the next - because that is how the digital world works, with its continual need to keep re-inventing itself. News publication will nevertheless thrive, however, in one form or another, because we will always thirst for news. It will continue to hit the occasional heights, keeping us informed and creating essential talking points. But, like the movies, it is doomed to a constant state of anxiety, for as long into the future as anyone can see.