Form vs function in journalism

Just watched, despairingly, Newsnight on BBC2 grappling with the “death of the newspaper”. The peg for this feeble item was the arrival of the Digger at Luton airport.  He has, it seems, flown the Atlantic in order to reassure his serfs and placemen at the Sun (a newspaper) that he is not going to close it down.** The Newsnight item followed the usual recipe: a short film report followed by a studio ‘discussion’ with three guests: a former tabloid editor, a doughty female hack (Joan Smith) and a young gel in impossibly high heels who is the UK head of the Huffington Post, a parasitic online creation that feeds on proper journalism.

The really annoying thing about the discussion was the way it failed to distinguish between format and function. The thing we need to preserve is not the newspaper (a form which was the product of a technological accident and a particular set of historical circumstances) but the function (provision of free, independent and responsible journalism). Once upon a time, publishing in print was the only way to ensure that the product of the function reached a public audience. But those days may be ending. The organisations traditionally known as “newspapers” need to transform themselves into journalistic outfits that produce a range of outputs, one of which — but only one of which — may be a printed paper.

The other thing that those who run newspapers need to realise is that digital technology implies businesses that earn much lower margins than analogue businesses did. In the old days, newspapers were often licences to print money. (The Digger’s Sun still is.) But in every industry where digital technology has taken hold, margins have shrunk. Could you support a newsroom of 120 journalists — plus all the material and distribution expenses that go with producing a print product — on the revenues that a newspaper website currently earns? Answer: no. But could you support a newsroom with 80 journalists and a purely online offering with the same revenues? Answer: possibly — provided you were prepared to settle for a modest return (say 5%) on investment.

**Later: Murdoch announced that he would be setting up a Sunday Sun — a continuation of the Screws of the World by other means. This was hailed by the mainstream media as a bold, defiant and possibly inspired tactic. I’m not so sure: it’s just possible that the Murdoch brand is now so toxic that the new gamble won’t wash. An alternative reading is that the old guy is finally losing his marbles. If the US laws against corrupt payments are triggered by the most recent developments (the arrest of Sun journalists on suspicion of making such payments to public officials) then the supine directors and shareholders of News International may finally be moved to, er, move.