The media review of the year - Peter Wilby

Throwing any old rubbish at readers in the hope they never notice won't work any more. For that reas

Over the past six months I have been developing a little cottage industry, mainly in these pages, in what is rather grandly called commentating on the media. As I rarely watch television, and have never worked in it, I am really a commentator on the press. But have I launched myself into a dead-end job? Is the industry on which I comment about to disappear? Or, as I like to compare my work to that of a theatre reviewer, is an art form about to become obsolete?

By far the most significant press event of 2005 was the decision by the Daily Mail and General Trust to sell Northcliffe, its regional newspaper division, which owns more than a hundred papers, including the Bristol Evening Post, the Leicester Mercury and the Grimsby Telegraph. The shock effect is comparable to ExxonMobil getting out of oil. We are talking here about one of the two most stable newspaper groups in Britain (the other is the Guardian Media Group) and the only one that has been controlled by the same family for nearly 110 years. Northcliffe itself can trace its history back to 1928. Whatever they think of its papers' politics, newspaper people revere the Mail group for the professionalism of its products and its commitment to journalism. Its national papers are among the few where journalists, rather than accountants and marketing people, are still in charge.

Even the most committed newspaper owner will consider getting rid of loss-making titles - after all, the first Lord Rothermere had the sense to sell the Times. That isn't the issue with Northcliffe, however. Its operating profit for the year up to October was £102m (up 1.5 per cent on the previous year) on turnover of £520m. By any normal criteria, that amounts to rude health. The company's national newspapers division, including the London Evening Standard and the London freesheet Metro, as well as the Daily Mail and its Sunday sister, is far less profitable, with £95.1m profit in the past year on turnover of £877m.

The ways of capitalism are mysterious and the group's explanations for the sale - something to do with holding more exhibitions - are opaque. But the inescapable conclusion to me is that the Mail thinks regional newspaper profits will shortly collapse. For the moment, Northcliffe can fetch a high price, probably from venture capitalists, a polite term for asset-strippers. But if the Mail group were to hang on, it would be sitting on a diminishing asset. The same thinking, presumably, was behind Rupert Murdoch's sale, also in 2005, of the Times supplements (excluding the Times Literary Supplement) which are also, in proportion to turnover, awesomely profitable.

The Times supplements, like regional newspapers, make their profits from classified advertising. And this is moving rapidly to the internet. The net, with all its convenience, low cost and opportunities for instant contact between buyer and seller (or employer and job applicant) is now the natural home for classified.

The only thing that holds it back is the large proportion of the population that still isn't online. That proportion will soon diminish to audiences that few advertisers want to reach: the old, the poor and the technically incompetent. Given that many readers buy local and professional papers mainly (sometimes only) to browse the classifieds, the dangers to circulation, as well as to advertising revenue, are obvious.

This could well be the big media story of 2006. But I refuse to believe that newspapers as we know them are doomed. The advent of television led many to predict the demise of the cinema and, at first, it seemed they were right. After long years in the doldrums, however, it revived in spectacular fashion, and the annual total of cinema attendances is now higher than in 1945. It did so by marketing itself as a treat and a premium product, which drew on its attractions as a place of romance, escapism and sensuality. What was once primarily a working-class medium became a chic, middle-class one.

True, nearly all the films shown are trash but, as the great New Yorker critic Pauline Kael argued, most films always were and that was their charm. The trick is to produce quality trash.

Newspapers need to do something similar: go for quality and highlight their old strengths. The biggest innovation of 2005, the Berliner-style Guardian - which looks like a luxury product, but doesn't try to do what glossy magazines do better - provides a glimpse of one possible future. The Guardian, which also depends heavily on classified, has been acute in spotting how to cope with the internet. Before anyone else, it established its brand online, gaining an international profile as well as protecting itself, albeit precariously, from raiders on its classified revenue. Significantly, both the Mail and Murdoch were slow to understand the growing importance of the net and to invest in it.

As classified advertisers go online, they may prefer to stay under the umbrella of a familiar brand, such as a newspaper. But it's hard to see why, in the long term, they would continue to pay for expensive newsprint and distribution. Display advertisers, too, may eventually conclude they can better target their potential customers through the web.

So newspapers may have to depend more and more on cover-price revenue.

Perhaps websites, plus podcasting and the like, will become the medium through which a paper reaches most of its readers, with the printed version being a luxury for those who can afford it (or want to afford it), rather like a leather-bound book. On the other hand, perhaps printed newspapers will survive as marketing devices for their online activities, in which case they can continue to sell cheaply or even go free of charge.

Either way, they will have to be good, offering quality rather than the quantity they churn out now. Throwing any old rubbish at readers in the hope they never notice (Richard Desmond's Express papers are the biggest offenders) won't work any more. And for that reason, press commentators, trying to judge whether high standards are being maintained, will be even more essential. Or so I keep telling myself.

Two more papers - the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday - abandoned the broadsheet format in 2005. A third, the Observer, will follow in the New Year. The Guardian has been much praised, not least by me. But the IoS also deserves credit for a handsome new look. For years, the paper has seemed apologetic about itself, as if even its own journalists didn't think it should still be there. Now it feels confident and businesslike and skilfully covers up its continuing lack of resources.

The biggest flops of the autumn redesigns were the two Telegraphs. The daily paper, as it turned out, was merely tweaked, while the Sunday paper looks like a dowager duchess trying to be cool but failing, with the result that some news-stand browsers tell me they keep mistaking it for a regional paper. I fear it is becoming harder to make a broadsheet look convincingly modern and that, at some stage in 2006, the Daily Telegraph at least will go tabloid.

By most standards, it has not been a big year for news. National merriment was most enhanced by David Blunkett, national pride and pleasure by England's cricketers. The government's Commons defeat on the terrorism bill and David Cameron's emergence as Tory leader may turn out to be the start of big stories. But the Indian Ocean tsunami and the London bombings were the only events that seem certain to get more than a few lines in the history books. Much of the news was more of the same: Iraq still in chaos, Bush still crazy, glaciers still melting, Brown still waiting. The general election merely depressed newspaper circulations. It is hard now to remember it happened.

Newspapers have to do something, however. The sheer quantity of pages, the decline in front-page story counts and the fashion for dramatic spreads require editors, whenever possible, to go overboard. That, I suppose, explains the growing habit of eulogising the recently departed at enormous length. It is hard to believe that, even ten years ago, an elderly Polish Catholic and an Irish footballer who hadn't kicked a ball in anger for more than a quarter of a century would have received such exhaustive coverage simply for dying. There is something quite ghoulish about the way newspapers and television anticipate these events, with the hourly bulletins on livers and lungs, the reporters speaking live from the hospital doors (as though they had just rushed from the bedside) and the doctors trying to turn themselves into media stars. Whenever Margaret Thatcher or Nelson Mandela look a bit peaky, you can almost hear the press smacking its lips.

This is one trend that seems unlikely to diminish in 2006. I cheer myself up by reflecting that, at this rate, even former New Statesman editors will merit a couple of spreads.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.