End of the news romantics

Newspaper office

For those brought up in the pre-digital era it's easy to lament the switch from prized paper to touchscreen ubiquity. But, in the first of a series about innovation, Andrew Marr says the future will be truly liberating for those who want to keep up with events.

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Andrew Marr

We live in fast-changing times but we are, most of us, more Velcro than silk”

End Quote Andrew Marr

An unwieldy, arthritic and entirely unlikely hummingbird, I have been hovering on the cusp - on the luscious cusp, that is, of leaving the old news system and joining the new.

I am on the edge of replacing paper newspapers with electronic versions for my iPad and phone; of accepting that I hardly ever wait for a conventional news bulletin; and of actually reading full-length books, with pleasure, as downloads.

If that's the case for me, almost 51 and a slow adopter, it's happening everywhere.

I felt I was the last of the news romantics, only at home with a mound of coffee-stained newsprint, always on the sofa for the Ten O'Clock bulletin.

Now "they" have got me - the shaven pated, T-shirted, Maori-tattooed gauleiters of the digital future. So far, so banal. In a recent piece in the Guardian, Clay Shirky, an American writer says: "In one bleak sentence, no medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds."

That's not quite true.

Newspaper and media use is as sticky and slow to change, as illogically romantic, as our habits in eating or dress.

Millions of people won't surrender their traditional family newspaper, read at the table, whatever the rival attractions. Millions will keep traditional news bulletin audiences looking respectably high. We live in fast-changing times but we are, most of us, more Velcro than silk.

But it's true enough. My kids flick to news channels and pick up free newspapers. They follow their friends on social networking sites, not politicians or columnists. Why do they matter? Because they are the next cohort whom somebody needs to persuade to pay for journalism.

Newspaper with coffee cup and stain Wake up and smell the coffee stain

And who will that be? I think it isn't long before in news terms, there is hardly any distinction between broadcasting and newspapers. This singularity is almost here.

On my iPad, I will follow a political crisis in real time, merging commentators and video clips, a little bit of Nick Robinson here and some Simon Jenkins there.

A screen is a book, a news magazine, a film screen, an audio feed. The BBC and the Times will more than ever find themselves jostling in the same business, not casting, not printing but two newsbrokers. Words change their meaning all the time: perhaps "newsagent" is next.

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News ceases to be the theatre of the real, and becomes muttering walls”

End Quote Andrew Marr

There are dangers and sadnesses embedded in the shift. There's the problem of endlessness and ubiquity. If something is always available, like tap water, you tend to value it less.

As news ceases to be gathered round the event of a big-guns bulletin, or a wad of Sunday newsprint, it bubbles along and becomes easier, not harder, to disregard.

I call this the Jeff Beck paradox: "You're everywhere and nowhere, baby…". Pasted endlessly onto the screens in trains or shopping malls, news ceases to be the theatre of the real, and becomes muttering walls.

Another danger is that it lets unreflective politicians decide that, if broadcasters are no longer "special", even the BBC can be privatised and broken up. As it happens, I think this would be far more dangerous for the Murdochs and Associated News's of this world, than for Continuity BBC.

Child with an iPad The future is bright, the future is backlit

Imagine this brand freed from the restraints of Royal Charter, able to fundraise and fling itself into the market, to act as ruthlessly commercially as anyone else. It isn't a pretty thought. I say to my friends in other media companies: be careful what you wish for.

In all this, what really matters? Diversity. Fairness. And above all, paying for professional, invigilated and monitored journalism. Reporting has worked hard to get its current low reputation.

But it remains a difficult, important trade, without which we are at the mercy of private conspiracy theorists and corporate PR. It needs to be paid for, whether by a boom in online advertising rates, or the Murdoch paywall, or a licence fee.

That is the hardest question ahead. It will be resolved, by some organisations, somehow.

Andrew Marr

Hear more from the BBC presenter on The Andrew Marr Show on Sundays on BBC1 at 0900 BST

The good news is that once it is, the convergence of moving images, text, sound and archive promises a golden age in how we understand the world. We'll combine the vivid immediacy of television and radio with reflective words and interactive graphics in ways which will make the old "and now, here's our next story" bulletins feel patronising, and traditional newspapers seem meagre and pinched.

The kit now being sold is truly liberating. Just a few years ago, I was shaking my head and saying I thought I'd had the best of times for journalism, and wouldn't want my children to join the trade. No longer. I'd like to be 20 and starting out again right now. Only - not the piercings.

Add your comments using the form below

At university, the local newsagents offered all papers for 25p. I used to buy four or five and sit in a cafe between lectures surrounded by print. It is a cheaper habit than technology and brings more pleasure than scrolling - and I can read in public without fear of a mugging. Technology is useful, but I don't want books and papers to be replaced by electronic media. It's useful but heartless, and although I'm perfectly at home and happy with technology, I'll be sticking to the daily crossword when I'm on the train.

Jane, Newcastle, UK

My books have been like family members to me - each and every one loved, written in, read and re-read. I remember the first book I actually paid my own hard earned cash for (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - but I was only eight and it was actually pocket money). I have first editions of James Bond, a complete set of Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and over two thousand or so other books in my dusty library. But now after I've had my iPad 3 months I look at my library and wonder if I'm staring at two thousand lumps of dusty pulp.

Julian Stubbs, Stockholm, Sweden

"The kit now being sold is truly liberating"... the emphasis here seems to be on what can be bought. I'm delighted that Andrew Marr can afford a new iPad and that he's enjoying the immediacy and freedom it brings, but not everybody is able to join him. A newspaper, the radio and a small television are within reach of most of us in this country, but we are kidding ourselves if we think this acquisition policy extends globally.

Sue McLoughlin, Manchester, England

To me the greatest loss with this new electronic age is the fact that objects like newspapers and books will stop existing for most people. Tactile experiences are becoming fewer and fewer. Slowly children won't know how to make things with glue and paper, bits of cardboard and paint. They will just switch on and watch. The gap between experience, knowledge and actually doing something will get wider and wider until the only way to know how something is done or was made, will be to 'Google' it or look on YouTube.

John Bradley, Twickenham, UK

The traditional news media is definitely under siege from the new online media. Blogs can post things much faster than the traditional media ever could. But that's because blogs don't fact check, and just repeat and re-seed news. It's the traditional media that does fact checking (in theory) and that produces large amounts of deep content. But once the speedy blogs destroy the online media, aren't we going to be left with a big hole where all that original content used to be? And a whirlwind of endlessly repeated rumour and partisan spin, that no-one can every really trust.

Tom, Tokyo

Andrew Marr may welcome the immediacy of the new technology but he would not like to be starting out in it. The 'career' of journalism in print is not there and neither is the money. Paying for content will become one of the greatest challenges of the next 10 - 15 years. At the moment the market is irredeemably skewed because the British Broadcasting Company has become a publisher and is offering its content for free. As the BBC is essentially funded from a private tax this situation can only be remedied by government funding for other UK news organisations or by the BBC ceasing to publish articles like this one by Andrew.

Peter Warren, Debenham, Suffolk, UK

A very compelling argument for the unfettered advance of the digital age. As I was reading, we had a power cut; nothing major, just a few seconds. Enough to stop me reading while my PC re-started. I'm seeing from my window 40-year-old wooden poles carrying the power cables and telephone lines into my house and realize that the digital delivery for all this information is up to date and impresses me. The power stations and infrastructure are not so up to date - something like a horse and cart being used to transport the space shuttle to its launch pad.

Greg Dudd, weston super mare

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