Few occupations are as fruitless – or leave you as open to mockery – as future-gazing. Expertise and cast-iron certainty are no defence; just ask IBM’s chairman Thomas Watson, who declared in 1943:“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” (I imagine him adding: “OK, maybe more. Maybe, I dunno, seven?”) Fifty-two years later, Clifford Stoll wrote a piece for Newsweek magazine entitled “The Internet? Bah!” in which he argued that “cyberspace” would never catch on. His piece now appears on the web above an advert for “Newsweek on the iPad”; the title went online only earlier this year.
The accelerated pace of progress in the media landscape since the rise of the internet has both increased the number of “future of journalism” pieces and rendered them outdated embarrassingly quickly. In my first job on a national paper, less than a decade ago, we still sent black and white pages; sometimes we’d have to change the running order of the “book” in order to make sure a good picture ended up on a colour page. If you’d asked any of us then if there was a market for a website where people consumed their news in 140-character bursts, or a placemat-sized, black, shiny brick, we’d have been sceptical. And we’d never have believed that a British national paper would announce, as the Guardian did in 2011, that it was going “digital-first”, diving headfirst into a medium that has proved so stubbornly resistant to profitability.
But however inherently unpredictable the future may be, media commentators will persist in whipping out their crystal balls. My own collection of the worst offenders of the past decade is topped by Victor Keegan’s 2007 opus, “Will MySpace ever lose its monopoly?”. Around the same time, the website TechCrunch didn’t like “Twttr” either, sternly warning: “I imagine most users are not going to want to have all of their Twttr messages published on a public website.”
One recurring theme is the hailing of a new product as the “saviour of journalism”. Unsurprisingly, these calls get more frequent as the web sucks yet more money from the newspaper industry. In the early 2000s, it was CD-Roms: bundling a film or album in with the paper was supposedly sales Viagra. Next, in 2006, several titles unveiled “click and carry” – a PDF edition was available for download at lunchtime or home time, ready for you to print out and read. (The Guardian’s version, G24, still exists on a cobwebby part of their site and is still updated daily.) More recently, “social” has become the buzzword: getting readers to shove your content in front of their friends. Because of the higher ad revenues available, many print titles are trying video again, after disastrous earlier efforts involving rabbit-inheadlights reporters forced to make stilted conversation about their stories. This time, the idea is that users can make the content: sites such as Mail Online will bite your hand off for a video of an elephant seal crossing the road, or a toddler adorably explaining sexism in a toyshop.
Given all that, it’s no surprise that I’m reluctant to predict what the New Statesman will look like in 2113. Nonetheless, I’m willing to do it anyway, if only to give our Ant Overlords something to laugh about as they make another skyscraper entirely out of saliva and the charred remains of Alain de Botton’s back catalogue.
The first is that the New Statesman will survive: it’s already made it through two world wars and the waxing and waning of many smaller publications, some of which it has absorbed. The second is that it will still exist on paper: the printing press has been good enough for every generation since Gutenberg, after all, and as more of our lives move online, I think the attractions of reading a magazine with a glass of wine will become more, rather than less, apparent. My third prediction is that people will still pay for it: quality journalism costs money, and the decision on 26 March by the Sun and Telegraph to implement a paywall for their online content suggests that the industry’s desire to give content away free might be dwindling.
Yes, I’m probably wrong on all counts, and in the 22nd century some future deputy editor will be reading this beamed directly on to her eyeball and laughing heartily at my naivety together with the cryogenically frozen head of Clay Shirky. Then again, given the current trend of the retirement age, it’s possible that in 2113 I might still be working for the NS.
Helen Lewis is the New Statesman’s deputy editor. She also runs the NS website and tweets @helenlewis