The Essay: Stop Press
Patrick Kingsley explains why students should look beyond print and follow a wider move online
by Patrick Kingsley
Friday 21st January 2011, 01:44 GMT
If you’re reading this in print, I know what you’re thinking: Varsity’s a bit light this week. What’s happened to that nice fashion spread? Where’s most of Sport? Where’s half the paper, in fact?
Three years ago – when I edited this very rag – I might have shared your pain. If you’d suggested lopping 16 pages off our print-run and shifting most of the content online – which is what your enterprising new editors have just done – I probably would have had a right strop.
But I’d also have been wrong: newsprint is dying, and has been for some time. Online media is the way forward – and to realise even this simple fact, as Varsity is in the midst of doing, is to begin to engage with the future of journalism. By focussing its attentions online, Varsity can both contribute – in its small way – to the discussion about how we gather news in the twenty-first century, and better prepare its journalists for the realities of the industry outside.
This isn’t just rhetoric. In the last ten years, all UK newspapers lost around a quarter of their circulation. In 2000, The Daily Telegraph sold about a million copies a day, The Guardian over 400,000. Today, they shift just 620,000 and 265,000 respectively, according to figures released last week These readers haven’t been lost – they’ve just gone online. In the last year, the Guardian’s website readership rose from 31.7 million unique monthly readers to over 40 million; in the same period, the Daily Telegraph’s went from 30 million to nearly 32million. At present it’s a trend led by people of our age – but, by the end of 2012, more Britons across any generation will use online media as their primary source of in-depth news analysis than print newspapers.
What’s more, newsprint doesn’t just face a terminal decline in readership: it’s been hurt hard by a drop in advertising revenue – something which affects student papers just as much as the nationals.
Thanks to the recent economic crisis, big firms are spending less on expensive print advertising campaigns; thanks to the success of eBay and Craigslist, classified ads are also on the wane.
In fact, print’s predicament has become so dire that media commentators – from Jay Rosen to Clay Shirky, from Michael Massing to John Lanchester – have all but stoppped wondering how to save the newspaper Instead they are predominantly concerned with how we best monetise the news-website, and how we utilise its technologies for the purposes of journalism.
In changing and adapting its print product, Varsity can begin to find its own answers to these questions. The first is not so relevant to Varsity, since student media are unlikely ever to demand their readers pay for content. On Fleet Street, though, the question of financing news-websites is an urgent and unresolved one. Most online operations have remained free, preferring to expand their audience (and in turn their appeal to advertisers.) The Times, on the other hand, has retreated behind a paywall and demanded readers subscribe for content – a move which is not seen as wildly successful. As I wrote in a blogpost for Varsity a year ago, a multi-lateral paywall which – like Sky does for television, or Spotify for music – offered users access to thousands of news websites for a small monthly subscription might prove more effective.
But how Varsity responds to the second question, how to use the technologies afforded to online journalists, is, potentially, a more mouthwatering prospect. Put simply, Varsity’s new online emphasis should allow it to explain news narratives more often, and in more interesting ways. Instead of being a weekly periodical which recaps mainly stale news, Varsity can now bring you online stories as they happen throughout the week. And rather than just conveying these stories in static, text-heavy formats, the Varsity team – no longer fettered by the need to bring out a full 32-page print edition every week – will finally have the chance to devote proper time and resources to video and audio journalism. There needn’t just be wordy, after-the-event analysis, but in-the-moment live blogs too – a glimpse of which we saw with Varsity’s excellent live coverage of last term’s Old Schools occupation.
Of course, it is important to avoid technological utopianism. Websites lack the clear news hierarchy of a paper edition; their design is often cluttered, and they do not allow for the typographical variety that print does. Most problematically, people simply have shorter attention spans when reading articles online.
And yet, taken as a whole, Varsity’s shift of emphasis from print to internet is something to be excited about. With fresher and quicker ways of communicating news, Varsity’s new incarnation will hopefully offer an enhanced, interactive experience for you, the readers – and a more formative one for its writers.
Patrick Kingsley was editor of Varsity in 2008. He currently writes freelance for The Guardian.