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A much diminished media

17 Feb 2016  |  Raymond Snoddy 
A much diminished media

BBC Three has gone online-only this week, and the Independent newspaper is set to follow suit in March - but let no-one think it is a neat, futuristic thing or anything other than second best.

When a former broadcast channel goes online, as BBC Three did this week, or The Independent announces its closure as a print title, you can be sure of one thing.

Most of those in charge will put a modernist gloss on things, as they must, and say online is the way the world is going, where young readers and viewers are going, and all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

In the case of the Indy it is hard to exaggerate the difficulty of keeping a minority press title afloat in a desperately competitive, declining market.

It is better to be honest and say that both in their different ways have either failed as propositions, or at the very least ran out of the ability to be financed.

Though they will retain the same name - almost - the central point is that neither will ever be the same again either in substance or impact.

BBC Three, or BBC II!, did not exactly go out on a high. The biggest shows of the final night, Family Guy (480,000) and American Dad (421,000), were both American imports and have already gone to ITV2. Don't Tell the Bride was watched by 265,000.

The main reason for its move to online, which even the BBC admitted might be a tad premature in terms of viewer behaviour, was to save £30 million to divert mainly to more mainstream drama.

The most telling point was the fact that BBC II! is guaranteeing that its website, for that is what it is, will have at least four new full length programmes a week.

Four new programmes a week!

Which means by definition all the rest will be, ahem, short-form or not new, but of course that is an old-fashioned live broadcast concept.

The plight of the Indy is of course much more serious, reflecting its multi-million pound losses and the fact that the paper's circulation is now 56,000.

With more than a touch of understatement former deputy editor Archie Bland put it well.

"When a newspaper is available in more outlets than it sells copies, the future obviously looks a little cloudy," said Bland, who also spoke of the "lovely sort of chaos" in which the paper was produced.

About 100 of the 175 remaining journalists are likely to go with the majority of the survivors going to work with Johnson Press, new £24 million owners of the i.

20 posts have been advertised internally for the new expanded online Indy, which will almost certainly go to young, poorly paid digital natives. The National Union of Journalists is recognised on the paper edition but not for online staff.

The editor will be Christian Broughton, while the editor of the real Independent, as is for another couple of weeks, Amol Rajan now has the killer title of "editor-at-large". Cynics say his real title is editor-in-waiting of the Evening Standard.

For now the big famous beasts of The Independent such as Robert Fisk, Patrick Coburn and Rupert Cornwell have pledged themselves to the online life.

For the rest the danger is that the journalistic afterlife of the Indy will consist of what generates the most clicks, rather than what is the most significant or even independent.

For those under 50 it is important to relay from the distant past what a magnificent achievement the creation of The Independent was in 1986 - from the day when David Goodhart of the Financial Times leaked the news of the new post-Wapping publication.

The moves online have been perfectly reasonably called an experiment and many will be watching both how the Indy and BBC II! fare."

As a result the three Daily Telegraph journalists involved, Andreas Whittam-Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds had to submit their resignations to Telegraph chairman Lord Hartwell.

What a glorious thing it was for a new national newspaper to burst upon the scene, not only staffed by journalists but actually controlled by journalists, with its ownership spread around 30 institutions cleverly assembled by merchant banker Bruce Fireman.

For a few weeks in 1990 The Independent - It Is Are You? with a circulation of 423,000 was within a hairsbreadth of overtaking the Murdoch Times before the crushing price-cutting response.

The first strategic mistake came soon. On the back of the early success there was the opportunity to raise more money with a stock market float. Whittam-Smith allowed himself to be distracted by launching the Independent on Sunday to challenge the Sunday Correspondent and the moment passed.

For the years before the generous roadside resuscitation by the Lebedevs there were too many editors. With the exception of Simon Kelner's decade, there was one on average every two years, too many redesigns and attempted re-launches and even, for a title that had trumpeted its independence, too many owners. The paper was also late to realise the significance of the internet.

In the end maybe 30 years was its natural life span without the committed resources of a large group, in the face of the major disruptive, structural change facing the industry.

If some of the Lebedev millions that has been squandered on London Live had gone into the expansion of The Independent and the i, perhaps the inevitable might have been postponed, but you can't blame the Lebedevs for wanting to expand their media reach beyond the travails of print.

The moves online have been perfectly reasonably called an experiment and many will be watching both how the Indy and BBC II! fare.

Yet most experiments have an element of the voluntary about them. Here the move has been enforced.

Others may be forced to follow, but no-one should kid themselves, it would be a further defeat for journalism and the media - an opting under financial pressure for the next less bad option.

The optimum structure remains proper backing and promotion for a combined print and online offering.

The signs of stress are everywhere. The Daily Telegraph has had to deny that it is for sale, but the consultants are in and that rarely ends well.

At the Guardian, many people's favourite candidate for the next newspaper to go online only, or for several days a week, savings of £54 million are being sought after the organisation ran through £100 million of its reserves in a single year.

Generational change and the evolution of consumer behaviour may ultimately impose online-only on the newspaper industry, but let no-one think it is a neat, futuristic thing or anything other than second best.

It will lead to fewer and fewer professional journalists to dig out uncomfortable truths and journalism itself will be diminished in both substance and impact.

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Newsworks, ., . on 19 Feb 2016
“There’s no denying that The Independent’s decision to pursue a digital-future does feel like a pioneering move into unchartered territory, and, as with everything, we can’t know exactly what that will hold. Yet it’s important to remember that the heritage and values which shaped The Independent in its paper days will continue to play-out online. This isn’t the end, just another chapter.

As Amol Rajan and Steve Auckland outlined on Radio 4’s Media Show yesterday, the future of the title is based on incremental growth, global ambition and a continued focus on news-breaking journalism. With online revenues up 50% and traffic up 33% last year, no-one can claim they’re starting from a bad place.

Time will tell whether other newspapers follow. At the moment we as a nation still buy more than seven million papers in print each day and pick up nine million including the free titles, so don’t write off print just yet. It’s also important to remember that what suits one paper, will invariably not be right for another. As you said at Mediatel’s Future of National Newspaper event last year, when it comes to newsbrands’ business models “no one's found a single silver bullet because there isn't one”. With 10 national newspaper titles, more than any other country, it definitely won’t be a case of one size fits all.

But from where we’re standing, UK newspapers are still as important as ever and that’s not going to change any time soon.”

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