NSFW: Respected Newspaper Man on the Death of Print – "La La La, I Can't Hear You"

By any measure you care to use, British newsman Peter Preston deserves respect.

A former editor of the Guardian, the paper’s investigative reporting on his watch – including the infamous ‘cash for questions’ scandal – hastened the (admittedly unhasty) end of 18 years of Conservative government in the UK.

Today, Preston is still at Guardian Media Group, writing a weekly column for the Observer newspaper about the decline and fall of printed news in the Internet age.

But not this week.

This week, respected newsman Peter Preston has good news. The decline and fall of printed news has been greatly exaggerated! And to those who say that the Internet is killing newspapers, Peter says “pshaw” – a recent study has shown that not to be the case. Or as the headline to his column today reads “We thought the internet was killing print. But it isn’t

To which I say, “oh do shut up, respected newsman Peter Preston.”

Of course the Internet is killing print – assuming you’re using ‘print’ as a shorthand for ‘printed newspapers’, as opposed to, say, printed flyers left on car windshields or printed labels on soup cans. You only have to look at the numbers to see that. So let’s…

(And, lest I lose any of the five Americans who have made it this far through a non-US media story, let’s start with America.)  In the US, newspaper circulation is in decline across the board, with the most recent ABC figures (from April) showing that “average weekday circulation fell 8.7 percent in the six months that ended March 31, compared with the same period a year earlier.” According to the AP, “The San Francisco Chronicle’s weekday circulation dropped nearly 23 percent from the year before to 241,330 [while] at The Washington Post, average circulation fell 13.1 percent during the week to 578,482 and 8.2 percent to 797,679 on Sunday.”

Meanwhile (says the Poynter Institute) online newspaper readership continues to rise steadily. To which everyone in the world looks up from the laptop, iPad or smartphone and says “yeah, we know.”

Back to the UK, then, and the trend is precisely the same, with the headline on the Press Gazette (the trade magazine for the British newspaper industry) saying it all: “Year-on-year circulation drops for all”. And online? The same publication reports a huge (20-30%) year-on-year rise for most major online papers.

Surely if Preston had seen those figures, he would have chosen a different subject for his column. I mean, it’s a slam-dunk: print circulation is plummeting around the world, while online readership soars. Anecdotal evidence – every train car, office building and airport departure lounge – backs up the trend; print is out, digital is in.

But here’s the weird thing: Preston has seen the figures – and yet he’s still arguing that print newspapers should stop worrying about digital. As evidence he cites a single document: a report by ‘analyst’ Jim Chisholm which argues that “in the UK at least, there is no such correlation [between online rise and print decline]”. Chisholm’s report continues…

“This is true at both a micro-level in terms of UK newspaper titles and groups and at a macro-level comparing national internet adoption with circulation performance. Indeed, the opposite case could be argued: that newspapers that do well on the web also do better in print… Understandably worried traditional journalists should know that the internet is not a threat.”

Both Chisholm and Preston try to back up their argument by pointing to the seemingly arbitrary rise and fall of different British newspapers, some of which have embraced the web and some of which haven’t. Preston cites the ultra-tabloid Daily Star (selling 100,000 more daily copies than it did five years ago); and the mid-market Daily Mail (half a million copies up); and the Guardian (down about a third). Both the Mail (way up) and the Guardian (way down) have super-popular websites while the Star (up) has barely a website at all. How, then, can there be a correlation? The numbers are all over the map.

Of course this reasoning is ludicrous. The Mail is up because its owners are marketing geniuses, giving away free CDs and glossy magazines and coupons for free holidays to an older, more conservative audience that’s less likely to read a newspaper online. The paper’s online edition is up as well, because it runs a combination of ridicule-ready racist and homophobic bullshit that’s just ripe for linking, and cutesy animal stories that are just perfect for lunchtime web forwarding. The Mail’s offline audience hates the Internet, mainly because the Mail has told it to. By contrast, the Mail’s online audience, in large part, hates the Daily Mail.

The other blip – the Star – can be explained similarly. As anyone who lives in the UK will tell you, the only time your average Daily Star reader sees a computer is when his grandson steals one and hides it in his garden shed.

Preston knows all this too; so why then is he clinging on to a single report that tries – and fails – to argue the precise opposite to what everyone in their right mind knows is true: the Internet is killing newspapers?  And, for that matter, why did the report get written in the first place?

The second question is the easiest to deal with. Jim Chisholm is a self-described newspaper strategist, and former “senior strategy advisor to the World Association of Newspapers”. In other words, Jim Chisholm makes his living by telling the newspaper industry what it wants to hear. Don’t worry, newspaper industry, you have nothing to fear from the Internet. It’s all a big misunderstanding.

As to the first – why Preston is being so deliberately disingenuous – well, that’s simple too. Like too many old newspapermen – including the king of them all, Rupert Murdoch – Preston is scared. The print world which these men (and they’re almost all men) understood so well, and which they once stood astride like journalistic colossuses (colossi?), is shrinking. Fast. Pretty soon it’ll be consigned to history.

Who then can begrudge Preston, Murdoch et al a little bit of empty hope in their professional dotage? Perhaps all is not lost. Maybe, just maybe, experts have got it all wrong and the fall of print is just a temporary glitch. And at that, they pause, staring wistfully over at their old typewriter. Then… a smile.

I’ll ask again, who can begrudge Peter Preston that smile? Not me. In fact, I take it back, Peter, don’t shut up. Keep telling your lovely old stories about how print can still give online a pasting, just as soon as it can find its old boxing gloves.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will carry on figuring out the future of journalism, the first step of which involves accepting that print is dying and that the Internet is the cause.