Requiem for the newspaper

by Terence MacNamee

If you grew up with newspapers as I did, it is hard to envisage a world without them. But that day is coming.

Time was, everybody read the newspaper. Everybody. You used to read the newspaper to be informed and to be entertained. It was part of the daily ritual, like morning coffee. You felt involved in the affairs of the world. It smacked of democracy and civic spirit. People used to read the damn thing from cover to cover.

The newspaper was essentially a local thing. It belonged not to a particular country but to a particular city. It made sense on its home turf, where it belonged. In a very small country there might be a national daily. In a place like Canada there could be no national daily.

But time marches on, and the development of technology was killing the newspaper even as it gave it new scope and opportunities. Airplanes meant the paper could be flown to distant cities the same day. Then satellite transmission meant it could be printed locally and be on the street first thing in the morning. Then along came the Internet. What did this mean? Now you could read a particular paper anywhere in the world. You could read Le Monde anywhere, just as soon as the folks in Paris. So why (just) read your familiar local title?

People still read newspapers, but if they are internationally active like me, with a stake in several countries and several languages, they read at least half a dozen on-line. Read? Well, skim, and pick out the articles that really interest you, if there are any. It is entirely unrealistic for any particular newspaper to think you are going to subscribe to and pay for it. It’s just too much bother. Anyway, the thought may cross your mind that they should be paying you to put up with all that intrusive advertising, which is their real source of revenue. It is now axiomatic that no newspaper is worth reading in its entirety.

The old newspaper was a throwaway thing. It was precisely “ephemeral” – it was good for a day. The Greek for newspaper is still ephemerida. Nobody read old newspapers except castaways. Remember “yellowing newspapers”? Now a report or op-ed piece can stay on a website for days, weeks, months, and everybody can see just how flimsy and ephemeral or wrong-headed it was. On the other hand, it can be corrected and improved.

Newspapers are doing everything they can to maintain circulation and revenue. Internet editions were their doom – like lemmings, they couldn’t not take the plunge, but it sounded the death knell of the print edition. Circulation is spiralling downwards everywhere. This is a sunset industry.

What will take its place? There will be news and analysis websites that will simply replace newspapers. They are already there. They too will make the money to pay their bills from advertising, I’m afraid – unless governments decide to subsidize them.

When Jack Ma buys himself the South China Morning Post, is it the end of the world? Is it the end of democracy? Is it the end of Hong Kong as we know it? Good God, should the British never have left? On the other hand, does it matter who owns the South China Morning Post? How long will it or any other traditional paper be around?

Newspapermen, thank you for the two centuries of reading. Thank you for all the times you worked through the night to get the paper on the street. Now it’s time to shut down the rumbling presses for the last time and walk into the grey light of dawn.