Bring out the coffin. Call the pallbearers. Make sure the hearse has right of way. Dust off your old copy of 'Stop All The Clocks' by W. H. Auden, last heard in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'. In fact, hire John Hannah to provide the voiceover. And while you're at it, light up a few scented candles. A medley of jasmin and oceanus will do. Have hankies at the ready.
Print journalism is dead.
That's the verdict of Peter Preston at The Observer. Over at The Telegraph, Amanda Andrews informs us that The New York Times will start charging for online content. At The Times, Harold Evans's memoirs, 'My Paper Chase', hark back to a golden era for the written press. The message is loud and clear. The time when a journalist pressed a sheet of paper against a toilet wall editing a story whilst his flies remained open at the urinal and his own body took care of its physiological needs (thanks Ian Jack) has been crushed by that mammoth Leviathan: the internet.
But before we go searching for a priest to carry out the last rites, we need to get a grip and not panic.
A city with no dailies is hard to conceive. Newspapers shape our everyday life. Whether you are a broadsheet reader or enjoy the tawdry tales from the red tops, a nation's identity is also made up of the readership of a particular newspaper. Nouns are even coined as a consequence; apparently I am a Guardianista (without the second home in France, mind). That is why it is difficult for me to heed the trumpets announcing the demise of the once mighty newspapers. How can it be so when there are still thorough analyses, good critic and in-depth research in our regular journals?
True, there are dangers of which we have to be aware. For example, daily publications still have to maintain a degree of independence amongst them. To wit, any partisan attitude must be jettisoned in the interest of a more fair and balanced press. This is not so much to do with editorial content (which responds primarily to regular readers), but with any political alliance (which could alienate those followers).
However, as a way of assuaging our fears of a journalistic debacle we should also observe that dailies are not the only creatures facing extinction. Today's generation marvel at a cassette, ask what an overhead projector is and cannot imagine a time when we all grouped together in someone's lounge to watch a Betamax. Recording companies face the biggest threat ever from internet downloads and cinemas are closing at an alarming rate because people prefer to wait until films come out on DVD.
And if we watch the world of print journalism closely maybe we would find that it would be too premature to sound the death knell just yet. There's nothing at the moment that could occupy its place, 24/7 news notwithstanding. Online content is not infallible and the price we pay for that immediacy most of the time is less content, less depth and more confusion.
So what can be done to save dailies? One route out of this quagmire is to charge for online content, forcing the devoted reader to go and buy the paper's hard copy at the newsagents. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has certainly played around with this idea and the aforementioned newspaper, The New York Times, is dead set on levying a fee for users to access its web content. A commendable effort in the short-term, but unpredictable in the mid and long-term one. For starters, the same users who read newspapers online now (and I am one of those) do so because to invest in two or three dailies is beyond our financial means. My regular dose of news and commentary includes The Guardian, The Independent, The Times (occasionally) and The Telegraph (for its arts coverage). In addition I read Libération and Der Spiegel whenever I can. Start charging for reading their online versions and I will decamp to another publication. Which one? I don't know, I haven't got a plan B, but I won't cough up.
A better solution would be to invest more in the young generation. The children who are in primary school now should start discovering how exciting it is to write for an in-house monthly magazine. Take advantage of little boys and girls' natural curiosity, give them a camera to photograph what happens in their school garden, plant the seed of creativity, sit back and enjoy the results. Get the local paper to feature your school's stories at least once a term and share the success with the pupils. A side effect of this measure would be to improve children's syntax and grammar. No more "who's" for 'whose', "it's (contraction of 'it is')" for 'its (possessive)' or 'their' for "they're". And the aberration 'sort of/kind of' instead of 'somewhat/somehow' would be finally annihilated.
Moreover, government should fund apprenticeships in newspapers. And I am not referring to those half-hearted efforts whereby work experience students are brought in to serve tea and coffee. I'm actually suggesting that they get given their own space within a national broadsheet to voice their opinions. And submit them to the scrutiny that a professional hacker has to go through.
Get rid of confessional and agony aunt/uncle columns. They make for excruciating pain and the majority of them are not funny. I know that I have the right to turn the page if I am not keen on someone describing how awful he/she feels about his/her eyes or tummy shape. But when serious commentary makes way for insipidity of this type, I wonder if print journalism is not digging its own grave.
Another solution is to give a platform to new readers: students (discussed above), minorities (usually talked about but rarely talked to) and immigrants. And it is with the latter group that I identify myself strongly.
After years of reading the state-run Granma newspaper in Cuba, I am still amazed at the fact that my current Saturday journal contains nine sections and that each one offers interesting and valuable information. When I speak to other people born in totalitarian regimes like the Cuban one, be it Poles, Russians or Chinese, the consensus is the same, it will be a very sad day if print journalism disappears one day in the UK, let alone in the rest of the world.
Maybe the panic over the state of the written press is based on the speed with which technology has moved in recent years. Between the patent for the first telephone and the fax machine as we have come to know it today there was a lapse of about a hundred years. Barely a lustrum passed before we could text and take photos on our mobile phones.
However we also need to be aware that fashion is cyclical. If not, look at Mika's latest single, 'We Are Golden', and what is the first image that greets you? A cassette. In 2009. Come back TDK, all is forgiven.
So, is print journalism doomed? In my opinion, it isn't, but it does face a stern test ahead. So, don't write them off yet because if newspapers could talk they would surely be singing that clever refrain included in 'A Mis Cuarenta y Diez' ('At My Forty-Ten') a song by the Spanish singer Joaquín Sabina: Pero sin prisas, que a las misas de réquiem, nunca fui aficionado/que el traje de madera, que estrenaré no está siquiera plantado...(Hasten not for I have never been keen on a Requiem Mass/And the wooden suit I'll wear on my final day has yet to be farmed...
Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's concert the other night at the Cadogan Hall was memorable for three reasons. First, the venue felt perfect for her performance. It was neither too big nor too small, so the atmosphere was that of an intimate evening out with family and friends. Secondly, the two other musicians who accompanied her, Ralf Cetto on bass and Simon Zimbardo on drums, gelled magically around her to provide one of those once-in-a-lifetime nights that London is so good at proffering. And last, the Azerbi pianist herself was superb beyond description. She is one of those few musicians, in my view, who can convey a sense of nostalgia and pining for events yet to be lived. Although she played pieces I had never heard before, the feelings evoked by them were familiar and took me from absolute jubilation to pensive melancholy. Once again, Ali, thank you very much.
Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?' to be published on Tuesday 29th September at 11:59pm (GMT)