‘Newspapers are doomed’ forecast of the day

From a media expert:

The future of national newspapers is in doubt [...]: the purveying of ‘news’ (which is only one of a newspaper’s functions) is in several respects more interesting, more immediate and more dramatic on-screen. The greater part of all newspapers is given over to advertising [...] which keeps them alive, and to features of comment, information and entertainment which might just as well be found in magazines.

If national newspapers succumb [...] it may be a serious, even a tragic loss; but it is probable that local newspapers will continue to lead a healthy, useful and profitable existence for many years to come [...]

The astute reader will have guessed the prediction is from Some Time Ago.

It’s actually from the excellent, late Ruari McLean‘s Thames & Hudson Manual of Typography, published in 1980.

On the local press, he basically wins the prediction – it thrived, more profitably than the national press, right up to the point where localised Internet small ads nicked its main revenue stream. Expecting a 63-year-old print media expert writing in 1980 to predict Craigslist, Match.com, Monster and eBay would be a bit unreasonable.

But it’s interesting that someone so close to the trade (he was lead designer around this time for both the Observer and the Economist) called the outlook for national dailies so wrongly. While 2008 and 2009 weren’t great years for the print press, there’ll be a large selection of printed national papers on offer for many years to come, and the intervening 28 years were all ones that featured a thriving, albeit flawed, national daily print culture.

The rest of the book is also interesting. Obviously, in its own right, because of its excellent examples and advice on how to lay out words (of whatever sort), and descriptions of current and historical printing methods.

But also, because it was published by a near-retirement designer right in the middle of the time when hot metal typesetting was being replaced with computer-based phototypesetting, and before the advent of desktop publishing, it’s a strange mixture of things which are still absolutely relevant and things which are absolutely obsolete (my favourite example of the latter is the advice for every jobbing designer to buy a telex machine to allow instant written communication with clients).

This may be partly why Mr McLean got the national newspaper story so wrong.

In 1980, the newspaper industry was still based on hot metal typesetting, despite it being the most obvious example of a business that would’ve benefited from instant computer-based phototypesetting and offset litho printing, because of the utterly malign influence of the print unions [*]. Magazines, meanwhile, were printed in sensible places using modern technology.

It was only Rupert Murdoch’s willingness to fight a sustained battle to avoid printing his papers using Victorian technology that broke the influence of the print unions. This allowed the other papers to move over to computer-based offset litho, and hence the colour-based, photo-based, rapid-layout format we see them in today.

Without a proprietor who was pretty much an evil bastard willing to lose far more money than he had to gain to prove a point, the UK national newspaper industry would have ended up stuck on black and white Linotype letterpress at an insane cost right up until it died. At which point, Mr McLean’s thesis would’ve been proven.

Update: the Guardian’s Peter Robins comments. Well worth a read.

[*] I suspect this is one of the reasons the press in the UK trends right-wing, despite being made up largely of natural liberal-y media folk. At the time today’s editors were junior reporters, the print unions lived up to absolutely every change-and-efficiency-hating, restrictive-practices-loving, company-bankrupting, general-utter-bastard stereotype of 1970s and early 1980s trade unionism.

3 thoughts on “‘Newspapers are doomed’ forecast of the day”

  1. "I suspect this is one of the reasons the press in the UK trends right-wing"

    The corollary being that the Internet trends left because it was never unionised…

  2. This is all pretty much conventional wisdom from about 1965 to about 1984; the unions have a lot to do with it, but their grotesque position is itself a result of weird event-horizony stuff that happened as the national press pushed towards market saturation in the previous three or four decades. The likes of Northcliffe and Beaverbrook were content to let costs explode because it raised barriers to entry and because their boom revenues were growing fast enough to sustain it – they simply wanted to get as many papers out as they could, if possible by denuding their rivals of staff. (There's a 1922 pamphlet by Northcliffe that's interesting on this point, called Newspapers and their Millionaires, although I think he was pretty much mad by the time he wrote it.)

    By 1960, this arms race had generated two national papers with circulations well above four million in a country of about 50 million people, with four others between 1m and 2m, including a broadsheet with a higher cover price and acres of premium advertising, in the form of the Daily Telegraph. (There's also an evening paper market including three million sales in London, three-quarters of a million in Manchester, and proportionate sales elsewhere.) And it had also destroyed the whole economics of the industry: the costs had become so high that the News Chronicle wasn't viable at a circulation of 1.5m, and as of the mid-1960s ad slump, five out of eight national dailies were making significant losses, with new rivals for advertising coming on stream and no remaining prospect of growing the market to get out of trouble. They all spend the next 30 years trying to get the goat down the spiral staircase, while wailing that it can't be done; and then Murdoch actually does it.

    Sorry for the long blurt. Am supposed to be writing a blog series on all this, but it's a bit stalled at the moment.

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