Fleet Street RIP

August 25, 1995

Simon Jenkins's flawed argument in favour of the continued survival of newspapers in the face of competition from the Internet (THES, August 11) shows the dangers in attempting to understand the future without having a meaningful grasp of the past.

He is fundamentally mistaken in asserting that the electronic delivery of information is "fantastically inconvenient" and "expensive" when compared to the newspaper. As a former editor, he must surely recall how the newspaper industry lives in thrall to an antiquated, unreliable and restrictive distribution system. Newspapers do not get to readers because powerful wholesalers control supplies to retailers; shops open at their convenience; home delivery by child labour fails to match the work and leisure patterns of households; subscription copies are delayed, and even lost, in the post; delivery by road in inner cities is snarled up in traffic congestion. These problems have played a key part in the decline of newspapers. It is an experience shared by papers in the rest of Europe and North America.

Ironically, despite many national newspapers' opposition to the net book agreement, newspaper owners set their own (restrictive) cover prices. I have as yet met only one retailer discounting papers. Cheaper newspapers come solely at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, or the Mirror Group. But in the long run, newspapers will get dearer, while the end cost of the Internet will fall.

The advantages of newspapers Jenkins lists are, as a result, largely illusory. The Sunday Times is neither lighter nor more portable than a personal digital assistant is likely to be. This is even truer, of course, of its New York namesake. Moreover, I cannot read The Sunday Times "anywhere", if on three Sundays in four my newsagent has sold out. I face the same problem when my subscription copy of The THES arrives either on the Tuesday following publication or not at all.

Finally, while Mr Jenkins may be right in assessing a residual popular commitment to newspapers, and a parallel consumer resistance to perceived unnecessary innovation, he has not learnt the lessons of cumulative investment and marketing. The vinyl LP was killed off not by its customers but by a combination of retailers (12-inch discs did not earn their shelf space), hardware manufacturers (interested in selling the technology), and publishers wanting to recycle old catalogue.

As such he makes a mistake common among journalists in insinuating unjustifiably the popularity of newspapers, and print as a holistic "culture". This seems to derive from journalists seeing their main interest lying in the newspapers they work for rather than the consumers they serve.


Department of journalism, City University

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