Will digital kill the newspaper?

The world’s changing at an astonishing rate. What was the norm ten years ago is now very much retro (iPods and MP3 players anyone?). And it’s a sure fire bet that whatever it is we take for granted today, will be in the hands of hipsters before we can order two extra-skinny flat whites and a gluton-free blueberry muffin.

Technology comes and goes, and while we may swear undying commitment to one gadget one week, we’ll happily have binned it and upgraded by the following Tuesday if something sleeker and better happens to come along and catch our eye. 

But what of non-technological items, whose very existence is threatened by digital technology?

For years books have stood toe-to-toe (or should that be cover-to-cover?) in pitched battle with the evil forces of Kindle (other e-readers are available). Thankfully, for a middle-aged bibliophile like me, the battle is far from over, and book shops, while not as omnipresent as they once were, are still thriving, and delivering hours of retail happiness for book buyers around the world. 

But what of newspapers?

I work in PR; I have an unbreakable, old school allegiance to books; but I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I regularly walked into a newsagent to buy a daily paper.

(In contrast, I can pinpoint exactly when I stopped buying weekend papers – that was early 2009, a month or so after the birth of my eldest son, when I realised I’d never again have the time to leisurely work my way through that tree and half’s worth of print media.)

But back to that lack of a daily paper in my life. Like millions of others, I’m probably more up to date with the news than I’ve ever been before. These days, as soon as something of any importance occurs one or more (sometimes all) of the following will happen – a breaking news app on my phone buzzes; an e-mail pings into my inbox; What’s App dings; Twitter tweets; and from time to time my phone may even ring (especially when it comes to Mike Ashley sticking the boot in at St James’ Park once again).

News, like Jack Bauer back in his prime (DVD boxsets anyone?), now happens in real time – second-by-breaking-second.  The newsroom battle seemingly more about being first to a story, rather than providing any depth to it.

Of course, newspapers do play a very different role these days. They’re no longer news breakers, but news reactors and dissectors – providing in-depth editorial of the big stories. Their online alter egos having taken over the news breaking job that once saw The Mirror sell upwards of 5million copies a day.

While that circulation figure seems enormous, especially in comparison to the 1.4million copies the UK’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun, currently sells per day; even it pales in comparison to the 45million social media users in the UK today.

That’s 45million people with easy access to breaking, real-time news, whether through the traditional news providers or simply bystanders with a smartphone.

And while I’m in Statto mode (remember him?), 90 per cent of the 25million homes in the UK now have internet access. Which by my unscientific reckoning means that the handful of folk still resisting the lure of social media, can still access all the news they’ll ever want without ever having to trouble their local newsagent.

So, what’s the future for newspapers in the UK? 

The answer is as complicated as you’d expect from a country that still has 12 national dailies, and over 1,500 regional dailies and local weeklies.

To me, the nationals are doing exactly the right thing. They’ve embraced social and digital media and have done it extremely well. There are live news pages; active Twitter feeds; digital copies of the print paper; and where it can work, pay walls that mean digital income isn’t solely restricted to advertisers with deep pockets.

In contrast, the regional and local papers do seem to have been left lagging behind; relying far too heavily on dwindling print sales and sub-standard websites.

The Yorkshire Post, and its now early rising sister, the Yorkshire Evening Post, are both cracking papers that deliver high quality printed copies every day, but both have poor websites.

Similarly, The Chronicle in Newcastle (to which I refer to for my daily dose of Toon Army woe) has an awful website, which is advertising heavy and desperate to download a notification app to my desktop.

But what of traditional printed papers? Surely there’s something that can be done to reverse plummeting circulation figures?

Well there is, and it’s already being done successfully by the Metro and the Evening Standard – both of which are now in the top four of papers with the highest circulation in the UK; Metro at number one and the Evening Standard at four.

Free distribution surely has to be the answer.  

I travel by train every day, and every morning The Metro is everywhere, but come home time, there’s no paper in sight. Surely, that’s an opening for a paper to add thousands to its circulation and make itself far more attractive to potential advertisers. Throw in city centre workers at lunchtimes, bus and rail passengers throughout the day, customers in busy cafes, even office complexes, and slowly, but surely, circulation will climb.

Locally, the Yorkshire Evening Post has trialled this approach; giving out free copies outside Leeds station; but for me the trial didn’t last long enough, and copies weren’t offered in enough places, to properly gauge its success.

If I’d been asked ten years ago, I’d have said people had the same level of affection for newspapers as they do for books. But it appears our feelings towards the daily paper were a great deal more fickle.

Our heads have been turned.

Digital media really could kill the newspaper.

But the reading of the last rites is still some way off – newspapers aren’t beaten yet. They just need to start thinking differently to ensure the printed daily paper doesn’t become a thing of the past.

Written by Daniel Kennedy, 28/06/2019