Farewell to the paper

Posted on: 17 June 2011 by Alexander Hay

As The Guardian goes ever more digital, what about print?

Hold the press! (But not for much longer.)

It was bound to happen. With cash losses of £33 million and a decline in print sales of 10% a year, even the most obtuse of management are going to see where The Guardian lies, and it's not on a page.

Such is the fate of The Guardian, increasingly a very successful web site that's hitched to an ailing print publication and not the other way around.

Meanwhile, a process that began in 1999 with The Guardian's News Unlimited site may result in a fully digital publication by 2019.

There are problems with this, of course. Paper has the advantage of tactile physicality and digital formats don't actually have a long shelf-life.

In the long run, that historian in 2599 might note that records effectively ended in 2019, because that was when the world went all-digital and then lost all its data after a particularly nasty EMP attack.

Secondly, there is the sticky issue of making money from an all-digital format. Small outfits (like this site) can tick along as the overheads are low. On the other hand, heavy duty journalism costs money - and people who'll dodge bullets to report a story cost money too.

Meanwhile, The Guardian site still loses money despite attracting 1.8 million visitors a day by 2010. The challenge will be working out a model that actually pays for all that content the readers are getting for free. 

Online advertising is simply undervalued or dependent on 'pay-per-click'; its ambient value under-acknowledged. After all, a magazine doesn't get paid every time someone buys a product advertised in its pages, but rather, for the chance it gives for that product to be 'noticed' as the reader turns the page. Why, then, should advertising on a web page be any different?

There are advantages as well. Ecologically speaking, a paper-free Guardian will mean much less paper getting used, and while some argue that the carbon footprint of online media is a problem, that's still a lot of trees left standing. It's also a social good; you can now access the paper's content from any part of the world (Great Firewalls notwithstanding) and not have to worry about access or being restricted to your own local media. And as said, the game seems to be up for print media, at least in its present form, though good ideas can still sell in this apparently digital age we live in.

And that's the real significance of The Guardian's announcement. It's not that print can't sell or won't sell. It's just that The Guardian can't sell it any more, and seems to be better at the whole online thing. Whether the world will be a better, worse or simply different world without newspapers, however, is a different matter.

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Alexander Hay

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