There was a melancholic feel to the British media bubble on Friday. This mood was a direct result of the news that The Independent and Independent on Sunday are to cease printing; with the final issues expected on the 26th and 20th of March respectively. Many commentators took to Twitter, as is the modern habit, to express dismay at the news that our newspaper landscape is to lose two of its two left-leaning broadsheets. James Lyons of The Sunday Times called it, "Really sad news", Good Morning Britain's Susanna Reid noted that the closure was a "big moment for all journalism" and leftie comedian Chris Addison sarcastically quipped that it would rebalance the bias in the British media.
The broader story is more complex than a simple tale of newspaper closure. The reality is that The Independent and Independent on Sunday are to move to a strictly, and presumably paid-for, online service. It is also important to note that the i should continue printing following its purchase by Johnston Press [as a "sub-core" title perhaps?] It is not that the newspapers, as news outlets, are closing, it is that the print editions will be going.
What are we to make of the closure of these papers and the others that are sure to follow?
There is something to be said about the inevitability of the closure of the printed press. It seems difficult to imagine a world where news is delivered in real-time, updated immediately and comes with access to video content as well as coming on daily, static, cumbersome sheets of paper, in perpetuity. In the same way that Spotify has put the CD (ask your parents) out of its misery and email is slowly killing off personal letters; it seems that the prevalence of apps, blogs, news sites and live digital broadcasts from CNN, BBC and others will place a loving pillow over the face of the print media until it stops wriggling. For an excellent adumbration of this, the reader could do worse than checking out a recent piece by Professor Brian Cathcart for The Guardian.
However, just because it is inevitable does not mean that it cannot be prolonged for as long as possible in the same way that we deliberately slow the degradation of portraits. Here we find the central problem. A free, independent and uncensored press is vital in a democracy and that means it can receive no government help when it is in trouble. It is right that it does not receive government support - compromising the free press in this way would be worse than it dying off.
As much some who live in the post-Leveson era are unkind to the newspapers and pour scorn upon them for bias, sensationalism and selective reporting - they are still worth defending. There is something relaxing about a newspaper in the way that it requires our undivided attention to use properly because when devouring news online we can become distracted by texts, tweets, pop-ups and other modern day nuisances. A Sunday is just not complete without an hour spent with a Sunday paper, feet up and a cup of coffee steaming away within arms reach. The papers are almost romantic in this way; they connect us to the past and provide continuity to life as they provide a common experience for everyone. They are something that everyone can afford and can choose to participate in when they want to and, at important times, they are still a common focal point to gather around.
The reader might ask why I, as an e-journalist, would call for the papers to live for as long as possible. He might also, reasonably, propose that I should prefer to hasten the death of the print media in terms of the positive impact on the prospects, in terms of readership and job opportunities, of we e-hacks. This has an element of truth but it misses a key point - allow me to speak from my own experience on the proviso that I assume it is not unique.
When I was a student, a good friend and fellow journalistic traveller offered me some work experience with The Alloa Advertiser and Stirling News in order to sample journalism. This led to a placement with The Scotsman and now I have been fortunate enough to start a career in news. The point is that without the chances offered to people like me by the local and national papers to learn the skills that we need, then it unlikely that those skills would be transmitted to the next generation of journos. With all due respect to this and other online papers, there is not the personal contact nor the ability to develop the investigative instincts needed if one is to be a successes in any newsroom, whether that be online or in print. The papers really do pull double-duty in providing the news of today and the newsmen of tomorrow.
What can be done to slow the decline of the papers?
The first thing would be to include the papers in modern studies and politics classes in schools and politics modules in colleges and universities so that young people stop thinking of the papers as something their dads read rather than something useful to them. Secondly, if you buy a paper on a regular basis (well done, by the way!) then consider either buying another, preferably one that challenges your viewpoint (this sees me buying the National or Guardian - with mac and dark glasses on) or adding a magazine like The Spectator or Private Eye to your consumption. To borrow a phrase from one of the supermarkets from whom you could buy these publications, every little helps.
The papers were there when we needed them and we should to be there for them in their decline. Put down your phone and get your fingers inky, even if it means you have to wait a bit to read what I have to say next.