There’s growing speculation that The Independent newspaper will become the latest, and biggest, casualty of the credit crunch/digital revolution which has finally cut the rug out from under most newspapers.
The demise of the newspaper is a sad, but inevitable, result of the growth in digital media which began 10-15 years ago, and which has already claimed many smaller titles around the world, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer which switched to online only earlier this year.
But while the obit writers are wringing their hands about The Indy already, there were a couple points which jumped out at me, and which I am very curious about:
1. Why does a sell-off automatically mean The Independent and The Independent on Sunday have to close completely? What’s the state of their new media and what kind of balance sheet does that have? Even respected commentators like Roy Greenslade and Dan Sabbagh aren’t addressing the Seattle PI.com option. Why?
2. Why is everyone so worried about these newspapers in the first place? According to all reports The Independent titles are losing £10m a year, but their parent company, Independent News & Media made a loss in 2008 of £142.6m. So what was responsible for the other £132.6m in losses, and isn’t that a bigger priority than the newspapers? It might seem like a corporately naive question, but since no-one’s answering it, maybe someone should at least ask it.
3. What happens when the newspapers move to their new home, sharing a building with the Daily Mail in Kensington, a move which could reduce its losses by up to 75%?
4. Isn’t anyone giving The Independent some credit for having reduced costs substantially in the last couple of years with several rounds of swingeing cut-backs and redundancies?
5. How much has the feud between the owners and “dissient shareholder” Denis O’Brien added to the company’s woes? Someone should be asking some serious questions about his corporate responsibility and holding him to account.
The bottom line though is that there is a much bigger picture here – people simply aren’t buying physical newspapers anymore, and having established the formula of giving content away for free on the web (supported, just, by advertising), newspapers have pretty well backed themselves into a corner.
Local newspapers in the UK have also been feeling the heat, though they didn’t help matters by shooting themselves in the foot over the issue of video news.
(Regional newspapers objected to an ultra-local video news service being pilotted by the BBC, and forced the BBC Trust to stop it, on the grounds that it would undercut their businesses; what the idiotic lemmings didn’t grasp was that they couldn’t actually afford to make video themselves anyway, and that their only realistic way to achieve it was to have someone like the BBC invest £68m in an ultra-local video news service which they could then syndicate … D’OH!!!!)
Until someone makes robust and affordable electronic paper and a ubiquitous Wi-Fi delivery system for content (as seen in Minority Report), it seems the decline of the physical newspaper is inevitable, and the demise of The Independent will simply be a sad milestone on that long and painful road.
[EDIT/Update: Looks like the BBC may be trying again, and making it painfully clear to local newspapers where they went wrong, while other agencies like the Press Association are also spotting the potential]