There's an awful doubt beginning to infect the media scene as autumn comes. It takes the most commonplace assumption of newspaper life and hangs a great question mark on it. We're constantly told that newspapers as we know them are in a period of transition, moving to become purely digital papers on the web, on tablets, on mobiles, on gadgets as yet uninvented. There is light at the end of a long tunnel of uncertainty, a vital transition. Yet suppose, just suppose, that there's not.
Readers who read the online runes will recognise some of the doubts involved here: advertisements priced much cheaper than print, because cyberspace is infinite and therefore infinitely available; paywalls that raise useful sums that aren't quite useful enough; tablet efforts such as Rupert Murdoch's the Daily, that begin in a blaze of publicity then disappear behind a veil of silence; phone applications that seem hugely promising until you try charging a regular rate for them.
None of this means there isn't good money to be made on the net. Some specialist sheets and smooth operators are doing that already. But your average, all-purpose paper on a standard path to survival? Forget it.
On the surface of things, cause and effect seem inexorably clear. Paid circulation of national papers slides down from 13m to 9m over a couple of decades. Internet usage for news balloons from nothing to nearly 4 million uniques a day (in the case of the Daily Mail, while the Guardian reaps the fruit of phone-hacking). One side goes up, one slips back. It's a simple equation, surely? But look closer.
Take free daily papers, the ones that, for instance, have contributed hugely to the great disaster of London circulation results. Take 750,000 Metros each morning, another 100,000 City AMs, plus 750,000 Evening Standards. Look at what's being read on your commuter train or bus. People aren't sitting with an iPad: they're turning pages of reading material that cost them nothing. This isn't the average death-of-newspapers lecture. This is free print taking over from expensive print.
And expense, of course, is another factor. A pound a day for your favourite morning read, a couple of quid on a Sunday, a magazine or two for the family? Say £600 or £700 a year. It's a big item in the midst of a big squeeze, as fewer copies sold – and disasters such as the News of the World – mean fewer and fewer newsagents can make a living. You can't easily buy something you can't easily find.
Figures that lump all newspapers together as though they're the same can be pretty misleading, too. Go back to a world before the internet. In August 1970, the Daily Mirror sold 4,486,693 a day and the Daily Express some 3,605,883. Ten years later that was down to 3,624,575 and 2,224,651 respectively. In August 1990 it was 3,121,050 and 1,608,361. Think 3.5m wiped from the two biggest titles of their day in a brutal 20 years, but don't think of the curse of the net. It didn't exist. And some papers – the Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the FT, the Times – are selling as many or more today as they were in 1990. So movements in "the sector" can be somewhat misleading.
This doesn't mean that the general sales trend isn't down, by 5% or 6% a year. But general is not particular – and neither is there any convincing correlation between individual swings and roundabouts. The Mail, with its potential 80 million unique visitors online, is holding its own in print circulation; the Express, with no web effort worth mentioning, is flaking away.
So any "transition", when and if it comes, looks patchy and unpredictable. Is the Mail in print dying? Not at all. Is the Mail online snapping at its heels? Not when all those unique visitors attract only £18m a year in advertising. Does the Daily Telegraph, for all its huge web investment, see a future without print? Specifically not. Every newspaper has a different take on things to come and a different prescription for survival (while old prescriptions based on political leanings – one left, one right etc – are surely not redundant either).
It's comforting to talk about industry tendencies and share of total audience. Trinity Mirror has been doing it for years, to convince investors that its nationals are doing better than average. But no one engaging brain needs to buy the whole story. On the contrary, there are other, simpler, consequences to consider here. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (to nominate one prize example) runs a bit short of resources. It cuts back on deliveries to outlying areas to save money. That means circulation falls faster than ever, which in turn lops away advertising cash. The old Constitution wasn't doing too badly until it decided to make things worse.
No: the supposed facts around transition can be misty going on mystic. More than that, the arithmetic doesn't always add up. If you're producing the New York Times with, say, 1,100 staff journalists (roughly double the Telegraph, Times or Guardian norm) then those reporters, commentators and correspondents – integrated to serve a print paper and a website interchangeably – are a vital expense. They bring the expertise you must have and can charge for. You need your foreign bureaus and specialists in any medium. You can't take a scythe to such costs.
The nominated nirvana of transition is an eventual digital-only operation with the heavy-industry costs of paper and presses – maybe 60% of the production bill – theoretically removed. But how does that work in an era where print and its price structures are history, and far cheaper ads and subscriptions bring in the money that's needed? Nothing you see around you anywhere in the world currently hints at revenues on the requisite scale. The Huffington Post, now beating the New York Times's numbers of unique visitors, can afford to employ only a 10th of its journalists – and still can't pay its contributors.
Free access helps ad revenue, but not enough; paid subscriptions make a contribution, but nowhere near enough. Even a profit-making news venture such as Politico, the trailblazing specialist site for US political wonks, relies on a print version and print ads to keep it in the black. And that, for all the hype, is also the case for splendidly successful specialist sites from the Wall Street Journal and FT. They prosper because they're tied to market-leading print newspapers. The two mediums can grow simultaneously, as they do at the WSJ.
Perhaps, on the Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters model, there is a life after print. But that's the weight you can place on particular services for particular audiences. A general daily paper – all-singing, all-dancing, all-providing – has a seemingly crippling cost structure to bear if it goes wholly online. One can talk, almost emotionally, about transition. But, coldly, the next generation of the news business may involve sweeping renewal instead.
Yes, you can make money from special services. Politico can do it by targeting powerful politicians. Forbes.com targets international conference organisers. Auto Trader in Britain has a vice-like grip on the used car market online (in straightforward transition from print). There are lots of good ideas; there is loads of opportunity.
But suppose – as many are beginning to do – that you look at the evolving digital landscape and ask the basic question the other way round. If you knew what you know now, would anyone have invented a newspaper in the first place, rather than news services that come free on the net (from the BBC for starters) and a myriad of separate specialist strands so that users can follow their driving interests, from hedge funds to celebrity couplings? And, in most though not all cases, the answer is no: you wouldn't have invented newspapers, with their inevitably wide spread of coverage and equally inevitable burdens of cost. Least of all – alas for Murdoch's doomed, depleted Daily – would you invent a quasi-newspaper for tablet users only?
Transition, in any comforting, life-goes-on sense, is probably an illusion. Think way outside the box instead. Think unpredictable upheaval, utter transformation, to no set timetable; a stuttering, deluding rate of change. Think of a revolution we've barely begun to glimpse as yet.
by Peter Preston