Magazine

End of the news romantics

  • 15 July 2010
  • From the section Magazine
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.

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.

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.

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.

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