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  1. The Weekend Report
15 April 2023

Is this the end of newspapers?

I still take two papers a day. But the habit of a lifetime is vanishing beneath my inky fingers.

By Tim de Lisle

It started when I was seven. I had just fallen in love with football and, like all the best love affairs, this one faced obstacles.

My parents were not football fans. At home, near Paddington station in London, we had just gathered around the black-and-white telly to see a man on the moon, but I was far more excited by a man in the mud. George Best’s magic knocked me sideways and made me a Manchester United supporter.

In 1969 football took place at 3pm on Saturdays, plus a few midweek evenings, with only one English club game televised live in the whole season (the Cup final). I wasn’t allowed to stay up for the evening games; even Match of the Day, on a Saturday night, was way past my bedtime. I wrote an angry letter to the BBC, asking them to repeat it in the morning; they replied with a polite but firm no. That left The Big Match on ITV, which lit up grey Sunday afternoons. In the wide acres of the rest of the week, there was only one place to go: the papers.

Here my parents redeemed themselves. They had the Times and the Daily Mail delivered – both, in those distant days, broadsheets. They would read them over breakfast, but before that I had them to myself. I would wake at six, dash downstairs in the dark, sit on the doormat and soak up the sport.

The football was easy to find in the Mail, splashed on the back. It was harder to track down in the Times, then edited by William Rees-Mogg, father of the less tolerable Jacob. There were only two sports pages, squeezed inside and often shunted around, but they were worth it when you got there. Every report ended with the team sheets, where the Times made me smile with its stuffiness. England had two superstars then, both called Bobby: they were invariably listed as R Moore and R Charlton.

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The midweek match reports had a special magnetism. I was allowed to listen to the first half on the radio, tucked up in bed, but never knew the final score until I reached the doormat the next morning. I was dead impressed that the papers could get the story of the whole game written and printed and delivered by the time I woke up.

And so a habit formed that has lasted half a century. Packed off to boarding school at eight, I was thrilled to find that you were allowed to order a paper of your own. I went for the Daily Express before migrating to the Mail. The paper was black and white, but during my boarding-school days it was a splash of colour – like getting a letter from home, an event.

My dream was to play for England, but at ten it became clear that this was a long shot. I needed a dream B. Aha, I thought, I can be a football writer and still go to the big games.

As time went on, my football enthusiasm waxed and waned, sometimes eclipsed by cricket or music or life. The greatest love of all turned out to be journalism. Internships had yet to be invented, so I started freelancing for magazines at 16. I kept on writing at university, mainly for Smash Hits, and joined the National Union of Journalists, then an essential step on the road to Fleet Street.

When I was 23, the Daily Telegraph, which had become a gerontocracy under Bill Deedes, was being rejuvenated by Max Hastings. He would hire anyone as long as they were under 25 and offered me a job as the cub reporter on “Peterborough”, the Telegraph’s genteel gossip column. I have been writing for the papers ever since.

When I moved to the newsroom, the Peterborough crew gave me a framed cartoon that depicted our boss. “Now that Tim’s gone,” he was saying, “we can cancel the papers.” Even among other newsprint junkies, I was a noted addict. My writing has always sprung from my reading, all that pulp turning to compost. My brother Charlie and our sister Rosie became journalists, too, and the flat we shared was a forest of print. Those inky pages were where you learnt the language and picked up the tricks of the trade. Poring over them was both a pleasure in itself and a ritual to get the day rolling. “The morning paper,” said the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “is the realist’s morning prayer.” Give us this day our daily read.

[See also: When will the BBC get over it’s fear of the right-wing press?]

That prayer was being said by half the population:in 1987 Britain’s 11 national dailies sold 15 million copies every day. As each copy averaged just over two readers, more people were reading a paper than had ever watched the most popular soap (EastEnders, which reached 30 million in 1986). In 2023 there are ten national dailies and their total sales are estimated at 4 million, or 5 million if you count the Metro, which is free. This is an estimate because several papers, including the Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian and the Sun, no longer publish their sales. Most of the others are in freefall: in the ABC figures for January, more than half the nationals were down 18 per cent year on year. Even the mighty Daily Mail had slid below 800,000. (Full disclosure: these days I write for the Mail on Sunday about music and for the Guardian about sport. One role is print-first, the other web-first. I also have a Substack called United Writing.)

Journalism itself, for all the bad press it gets, is alive and clicking. The news may well be bigger than ever, now that Apple has become an aggregator and reaches even more people than the BBC news website. The papers, though, are slipping through our fingers. The Mirror, which sold 5 million copies a day in the mid-Sixties, is down to 277,550, having lost 17 buyers out of every 18 it had then. To subscribe to a paper is to be part of an endangered species.

I still take two papers a day, three on Sundays. Every morning, a dog walker without the dog, I head for the last newsagent left in my corner of North London and chat to him about the football. I pick up the Guardian (for the writing) and the Times (for the sport, transformed since Rees-Mogg’s time). I devour them over breakfast and enjoy them as much as ever. Even without my subscriber’s discount, they are good value compared with a coffee, a pint, or even a paperback.

Last autumn I started teaching journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. On Thursday mornings I take a feature-writing class with five third-year undergraduates on the History and Journalism course. They are bright and committed and never ever come in with a paper under their arm, not even the Metro. Once I gently suggested that it might be a good idea to buy a weekend paper and settle down with it. One student, talented enough to have appeared in the nationals already, looked incredulous. “Where,” he asked, “do you even buy them?”

The students are working on a 4,000-word feature that forms part of their finals. They are encouraged to find independent experts to interview. For this piece, I talk to three: a media correspondent, an academic and an analyst.

Will Turvill is associate editor of the Press Gazette, once a weekly trade mag, now a lively website owned by the same group as the New Statesman. He’s boyish, friendly, but blunt. So, Will, is print doomed? “For newspapers, yes I think it is,” he says. “I’m in an office covering the media and we don’t even take much notice of the print circulation figures. They’re in terminal decline now, or at least rapid decline. The newspapers have better stories to tell about how they’re doing online or with their apps.”

I wonder if he still takes a print paper himself. “At the weekend, the Times and Sunday Times –but not as often as ten years ago.” Surely the dailies still land with a thud in the Press Gazette office? “No. During the week I use services like PressReader to flick through newspapers digitally, then I go to the newspaper websites to read stories in depth. I read the FT and the Times apps, they’re really good. The Times is particularly good because it’s like a newspaper.” A twinge of irony there.

“I’m 32 and I don’t think any friends of my age buy newspapers during the week,” Turvill says. “Some do on the weekend. Reading a paper on the screen is not as fun. And there’s a bit of prestige in having a print edition. It’s notable that the Independent [which went out of print in 2016] produces a front page for social media. Newspaper front pages are quite nice to look at, aren’t they? They’re a historical document. I did wonder, when the Queen passed away, whether that might come to be seen as the last time that printed papers had an impact.”

For the view from academe, I consult Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a 42-year-old Dane who runs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford. He looms on my laptop with neatly brushed hair and clear-headed views. So, Rasmus, are newspapers doomed? “I think first of all you have to separate it out into two things – the newspaper as news organisation and the newspaper as printed edition,” he says. “It’s an infelicity of the English language that the word ‘newspaper’ covers both, where in other languages there are usually two different terms.

[See also: Is Substack the future of media?]

“Print has been dead for a long time for many people,” he continues. “Print is still somewhat important for a minority of the population over 65, and it does mean something to those old enough to have grown up with it, the over-45s. But even among the older group it’s a minority. It’s a niche medium that serves a small and shrinking audience well.” Ouch.

“Younger people are engaging with digital news, but the way they use it is quite different. Sitting down with a single source of news for 30 minutes is exceedingly rare. Most people use a variety of sources – their phone, the radio, email newsletters. Society has changed and there are fewer men who have no other responsibilities at home.” Another ouch.

Does Nielsen get a paper himself? “I haven’t bought a print edition since before the pandemic.”

The third wise man is Douglas McCabe, CEO and director of publishing at Enders Analysis, a media research consultancy. He’s an eloquent Scot of 55 who has spent 15 years examining the press. “When I started,” he says, “there were lots of people like me. Banks had newspaper analysts – that would be absurd now.”

So, Douglas, are newspapers doomed? “Yes and no,” he says. “Of course print newspapers as an industrial-scale phenomenon are nearly over. The length of that final runway is the only real debate, and publishers should do what they can to extend it.

“On the other hand, the idea and existence of the newspaper will not entirely disappear, perhaps ever. The vinyl album is maybe the obvious metaphor. At some point in the future, we will see that print newspapers, and also magazines, are expensive, inconvenient, impractical, beautifully designed, cherished products that do a specific job better than any other manifestation of their content.

“That job relates to layout, browsing, serendipity: 45 minutes at the kitchen table or on the sofa, coffee in hand. Such a product is an elegant expression of an editor’s (and perhaps a proprietor’s) vision and curation – an experience that is very hard for a utility designed for smartphone scrolling to recreate.

McCabe argues that, in 2030 and 2040, many successful news brands will prize some version of this product, not just because it is a hangover from the print era, but because it’s a solution with a loyal, multi-generational audience. But readers getting their hands on it might be the trickiest part. “The tripwire will not be demand, it will be the cost of supply. As sales fall, the unit cost of distribution will start to explode, and publishing companies have zero retail skills. They’ve no agility, because they’ve never had to think about it for 200 years. All that stuff was outsourced to WH Smith.”

When I mention the generation gap and the Gen Y aversion to paying for news, McCabe begs to differ. “When young people don’t buy online news it’s because of their life stage, not because they won’t pay for stuff online – my generation didn’t buy newspapers when we were young. This current generation understands the need to pay for quality online content more than my generation, not less.”

Does McCabe buy a paper? “I quite religiously get the FT Weekend. I just don’t have time to look at physical newspapers during the week. In the office, you’d see the odd one, to remind ourselves about things like layout and volume of advertising. And in our research we look at what is lost in the online world – the serendipity.”

It’s not dark yet, as Bob Dylan said, but it’s getting there. Longing for a light at the end of the tunnel, I ask the experts if any papers are bucking the trend. Two mention the same names: the Aberdeen Press & Journal and the Dundee Courier, both owned by DC Thomson, the family firm best known for publishing the Beano. In the UK sales chart for regional dailies, the P&J is No 1, the Courier No 3. It is clearly time to get on a train.

At the station in Dundee I pay £1.55 for a copy of the Courier. It’s direct but classy, sensible rather than sensational, and decidedly local. To get to its office you just walk into town, rather than heading for an industrial estate on the outskirts. The city centre is a set of civic edifices: the museum, the high school, the university and the Courier, a handsome red-brick building that glows in the faint winter sun.

The editor, David Clegg, comes down to reception to find me, wearing ripped jeans and a maroon shirt. He’s 40 and comes from Belfast, where he got the bug as a paperboy, delivering the Belfast Telegraph. He joined the Courier as a young reporter, then moved to the Daily Record in Glasgow, becoming Political Journalist of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018; in 2018, he was also named Journalist of the Year for his scoop about the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, facing allegations of sexual assault. In 2019 Clegg returned to the Courier as editor.

When I ask why the printed paper is still big in Dundee, it turns out the story is not quite as it seems. “I have to say that the brief for the job was explicitly to lead a digital transformation,” Clegg tells me. “In the last few years we’ve completely reorganised the newsroom, invested a lot in digital skills, digital training, and products on the website. Almost everyone who creates content produces it with digital in mind, and then there’s a team who turns that into a newspaper, whereas before it was the other way round. The Courier is a very profitable print product, but the future of news is digital. The way I think about it is that the print paper is a runway, to get a self-sustaining digital product off the ground. We have a bit of a longer runway than some.”

[See also: Is the BBC afraid of satire?]

Many local papers have websites that are free to read and clotted with adverts. The Courier and the P&J have swum against the tide, ditching the ads and charging a tidy £5.99 a week. “We’ve hit 25,000 digital subscribers for the two papers together,” Clegg says, “and some of them pay extra for the e-paper.”

He talks me through today’s Courier, which has separate editions for Fife and Perth, even though they’re only 20 miles away. The splash is an interview with a 12-year-old girl from Fife who is speaking out about being bullied, prompted by a Courier campaign. That’s brave, I say. “Very.”

The obituaries are further forward than in most papers, national politics further back. “I’m interested in what people will pay for, which in general is higher-quality stuff, like court reports. We’re back in every court in our patch.”

Clegg uses the web, with its limitless space, to provide extra services like posting school menus. “What you do find, however, is that no matter what team it is – the health team, the schools team, obituaries in particular – the people they’ve been dealing with will always ask, ‘When’s it going to be in the paper?’ That still has a level of cachet.”

Next morning I’m in Aberdeen, buying the Press and Journal for £1.65 and reading it over breakfast at Pret. Like the Courier, it radiates decency. The splash is from the courts: “Cruel thief robbed OAP as she waited for ambulance”. It’s an archetypal story, except that the thief was a woman.

The P&J’s office sits in the city centre, a sleek modern building surrounded by stately greyness. The editor, Frank O’Donnell, shows me the view from the roof terrace. “That,” he says with a laugh, pointing at the council next door, “is the second-biggest granite building in the world.” The P&J has a few superlatives of its own. As well as being the best-selling regional daily in Britain, it’s also the oldest. Founded in 1748, it had just celebrated its 275th birthday – and its first win as newspaper of the year at the Scottish Press Awards.

O’Donnell, a youthful 52, grew up in Edinburgh and he too was a paperboy, delivering the Scotsman and the Evening News. His parents didn’t take a newspaper, but “a friend’s parents did the crossword and opened the paper out and got me interested”. A football writer at first, then a general reporter, he went all the way from delivering the Scotsman to editing it. In 2019 he was poached by the P&J, which is a smaller name but a bigger paper, selling 26,746 copies a day to The Scotsman’s 8,762.

“The Scotsman has a much larger audience, digitally,” O’Donnell says. “Thirty per cent of its page views come from overseas – it’s got that name. The P&J is much more of a regional paper, and they wanted to invest in developing a proper digital subscription. We’ve taken all the adverts off the site and really tried to change the content. I’d spent my whole career on the back foot, and here I saw an opportunity to leave the title in a stronger position than it was when I entered it.”

O’Donnell is more traditionally dressed than Clegg, but behind the collar and tie is an amiable revolutionary. He doesn’t have an office himself, which means he is always among his staff. His conference room has no chairs and no doors, just three open doorways. “Stand-up, so you’ve got more energy and anyone can join. Three entrances, so if something happens and you want to know more you can give someone a shout.” Later he adds: “Leading is about empowering.”

The newsroom is full of plants and scoreboards, listing not just the most-read stories but those most likely to send the reader to the subs page. The aim is 75,000 digital subs in three years between the two papers, and they’re on target. “I’m very invested in making these titles work,” O’Donnell says, “but I’m also very invested in making journalism work. I don’t want us to win and everyone else to lose. If we can provide a path for other titles to follow, that’s very powerful.”

The editors I’ve known have included the good, the bad, the ugly and the barely there. I leave Scotland feeling that Clegg and O’Donnell are two of the best, both genial and effective, and each employing over 100 journalists while so many local papers are dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Reports of the newspaper’s death can be exaggerated. Its fans cling to the hope that it might, as McCabe suggests, be like the vinyl album – now back from oblivion and outselling the CD. Or, better still, like the cinema, which plummeted from 1.65 billion tickets sold in the UK in 1946 to just 54 million in 1984, then bounced back to a steady 150-170 million (before the pandemic).

Print still spells prestige, as Turvill says. You never hear anybody saying they want to see their name online. The front page may have fewer readers than the home page, but it has more impact. When the papers land on Twitter, around 10pm, they make waves. And print remains memorable, finishable, keepable: it’s not easy to frame a home page.

On my shelves is Tom Wolfe’s book The Painted Word (1975), which opens with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, the media guru. “People don’t read the Sunday New York Times,” McLuhan said, “they slip into it like a warm bath.” Does anybody treat nytimes.com, admirable though it is, as a warm bath? I remember reading once that the average visit to the site was half a minute, whereas the average time spent with the print edition was half an hour.

[See also: How the New York Times became its own worst enemy]

The paper is something to settle down with. You feel free, released from the clammy embrace of the algorithm. You linger over the letters and the obits (each one a bite-sized biography); you get past the cacophony of politics to read about real life, from families to food. It’s better for your mental health, your general knowledge, your membership of the human race.

I wish the papers, which know how to get a message across, would say all this. I wish they would blow on the more uplifting notes of their own trumpet. I wish they would show that most of what they do, from the war reporting to the books pages, is a public service. If you can convince the reader of this, as the Guardian has with its skilful use of the begging bowl, you can transform your balance sheet. “The best way of making money out of news, by miles,” says McCabe, “is to look your readers in the eye and say, ‘If you value this, pay for it’.”

The web will always win on some fronts – immediacy, interactivity, international reach. But print wins on cool, calm, collectibility. It’s curated and considered and far easier on the eye. It has charm. As the pop star Katy Perry put it in an unexpected tweet: “One of my favorite [sic] sounds ever is the sound of a crisp new newspaper being read over breakfast for an hour or so… The popping out of it, the folding, the scribbling on the crossword… I hope it never goes out of fashion in our digital world. It is too romantic.”

Nine days after I get home from Aberdeen, there’s a news story on the BBC site. “Three hundred jobs to go at publisher DC Thomson,” it says. “The editor-in-chief of the Press & Journal, Frank O’Donnell, has been told his job is ‘at risk’.” I’ve seen a few good bosses given the boot, but this is ridiculous.

Three weeks later, O’Donnell leaves. “I will forever have great memories of the team and what we achieved,” he says on Twitter. “I arrived with the ambition of finding a blueprint for sustainable digital journalism in the UK. I leave with more than 28,000 paying digital subscribers across our two main websites and the P&J as Scottish Newspaper of the Year.”

He isn’t able to comment beyond that, for obvious reasons. My mind goes back to the final question I asked when we met: will the P&J reach 300 years in print? O’Donnell paused and smiled and rolled his head from side to side.

“I like to think so,” he said eventually. “It’ll see me out, anyway.”

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats

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