A bunch of local (to me) newspapers closed down last month. One of them was gracious enough to publish columns of mine over the years and now I worry that my pieces on Surrey issues may have been the last straw for the publishers, and that they felt they had to protect the readership from me by closing the paper down.
One of the papers rash enough to feature my work had been in existence for over a hundred years.
Five years ago, I attended a seminar on the subject of citizen journalism which was thought to be very much the ‘coming thing’. I need to tell you this as you may not have spotted citizen journalists hurtling about your town or village, picking up scoops, and dominating your local news agenda. That’s because it hasn’t worked out at all.
At this seminar in 2010, a young woman chatted to me in a tea interval (it may even have been called a ‘break out session’ – you know how these things can be) and excitedly told me how her hyper-local news service was the future. I admired (and indeed still do admire) her enthusiasm for the project, but when I checked earlier today, I noticed that her news service hasn’t been updated since 2011.
Citizen journalism has no future at a local level because we don’t care any more. Three generations ago, people didn’t travel very much, went to school in the local town, and then married a local man or woman. Consequently, there was interest in local news (more likely, gossip) because everyone knew everybody else and wanted to know each other’s business.
Now, we barely know the names of our immediate neighbours, we get in our cars and boot it to out of town shopping malls, and we try to avoid eye contact if we come across the vicar.
The grim reaper has been stalking the printed press for quite some time now, but it does seem as if his scythe is being sharpened as we head closer towards what has been a lingering death.
In the last set of ABC circulation figures for the national press, only The Times showed an increase in circulation (and that was a miniscule 0.39%) with some papers showing catastrophic falls from already precarious situations.
The Sun and The Daily Mail can probably handle the downturn at the moment, with the latter supported by its extraordinarily popular website, but for the others, the bell tolls.
Of course, if those chucking money into the air on vanity projects – The Independent and The Guardian – continue to do so for the foreseeable future, they may stagger on, but at some point one can see the owners of all of the other national titles waking up one day and saying, “Wait a moment… Why the hell are we bothering?”
Somehow, I think the greatest impact of the loss of daily newspapers won’t be felt by you or me. It will be the rolling news channels on television that will find themselves staring at a void for hours of their programming.
Every evening on both BBC News and Sky, hours are put aside for a ‘review’ of the next day’s newspapers, where pundits trundle in to read paragraphs from the following day’s front pages (except Charlie Hebdo – they won’t show you the front page of that publication) and blather on about stories that are already old news by the time the presses start rolling.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough time filled (some may say ‘wasted’), the whole process is repeated the next morning when the breakfast shows clamour for the same faces to troop in and say the same things about the same front pages.
Increasingly aware that most people now access news through social media (especially Twitter), online, or through rolling news channels, newspaper editors and owners are relying on comment pieces, sports supplements, crosswords, and giveaways to keep the readers buying. Subscribers are the Holy Grail and so riches are offered to any of us who will hand over our direct debit details to one of these ailing national newspapers.
Get 20% off this; buy one ticket to that and we’ll give you another three free; anything, we’ll give you anything if you subscribe!
But none of that is news coverage. The national press can no longer be referred to as ‘newspapers’; they are vehicles for comment and gossip about sport.
Maybe there is a quiet revolution taking place leading us to online readership of news. I haven’t witnessed huge numbers of people on trains, in cafes, and in bars, accessing news on Kindles, iPads or smartphones, so I was surprised to learn from the Newspaper Association of America that the trend to digital is quite forceful.
In October 2014, American newspapers attracted 166 million unique online visitors, up 17% from October 2013.
They also report that 80% of U.S. adults engaged with some form of newspaper digital content in October 2014. Access to newspapers on mobile devices grew by a whacking 85% in twelve months, with the highest growth rates amongst the 18-24 age group.
The website that has replaced the local newspaper that employed me in the past is excellent, but it doesn’t feel the same, and for a writer (I’m not sure why) it doesn’t generate the same buzz to see your name at the top of a computer screen as opposed to the byline on the top of a printed page.
I don’t believe that citizen journalism has any realistic future; local newspapers are in terminal decline; the national press is mortally wounded.
So until Google find a way to send holographic news bulletins into your living room, digital, it seems, is where the future lies.
Terence Dackombe – January 2015