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A lament for printed newspapers

09 August 2013

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I AM still a bit gobsmacked this morning by the sale of The Washington Post, which has just been announced, to Jeff Bezos, of Amazon. It has already had one quite astonishing result: it produced a first comment on The Guardian's story which was actually worth reading. Normally, the first comment on any story there is compounded of inanity and nastiness, even if things improve later. But this time there was a joke that summed the whole thing up: "People who bought The Washington Post also bought . . ."

There will be even more unexpected effects. Although the sale may seem a distant matter from the Church of England, or even the British media, it highlights, as little else could, the huge changes in the media industry, and thus the atmosphere through which the Church is approached.

It is quite reasonable, in the light of the Washington Post deal, to ask how much longer it will make sense to have a "press column". My instinct would be to say "another ten years", but, on second thoughts, this is too optimistic - and too pessimistic, too. There will be something like journalism for as long as there is a mass market for entertainment, and a series of niche markets for information. There will be printed newspapers that matter for much less time than that.

The death of the printed newspaper is a real shame. It could not have been avoided, and I do not want to romanticise the content unnecessarily. But towards the end of their reign, the design and layout of printed newspapers had attained the kind of unity of form and function which cannot be improved.

When I stand in the Guardian offices sometimes, and look at the beautiful pages of the next day's edition, printed and placed up on the wall for the editors to scrutinise and improve, there is a pleasure and a surge of respect for all that effort, so well co-ordinated and with such an aesthetically pleasing result. Other examples would be a Leica film camera, or, on a larger scale, a tea clipper. And, unlike those things, a newspaper is doomed to transience by its nature. You cannot reuse it more than once or twice, or the cats complain.

The excellence in all these cases is, to some extent, independent of the content. I believe that the last tea clippers ended their commercial lives running opium. Leni Riefenstahl used a Leica. Even newspapers have been used to disseminate lies and evil. But they were wonderful, for a moment.

You can still sail a tea clipper. You can still take pictures with a Leica (while there is film to be had). But what can you do with a newspaper-printing plant?

The most notable irony of the Washington Post purchase is that it should be Mr Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who bought it. The purchase price - $250 million - is pocket money to him now: about one per cent of what his stake in Amazon is worth. It is worth so much, of course, because Amazon has been one of the prime factors gutting the old newspaper business-model.

People mostly blame Google, and that is fair, too. But it would be hard to tell which firm has done more to destroy the classified ad business that kept newspapers afloat for a century or more. When you want to buy something now, it hardly matters whether you go to Amazon or Google first.

But what about the news? Oh, catch up at the back. No one will pay for that any more, and few people ever really did. "News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read," one of the characters in Scoop says, and this is astonishingly true in the ad-supported end of the business.  

There is another sort of news, which is whatever is relevant to the things we do, in fact, care about. Most of this is market-related. But here, too, the movement away from paper newspapers has been overwhelming, simply because, with real news, speed matters. So that has gone online, too.

I am enough of a real journalist to dislike pomposity and self-importance, even in my own business; and there is a certain pleasure in seeing The Washington Post, a paper with (ahem) few rivals in self-importance, sold off like that to a ruthless billionaire who, unlike Rupert Murdoch, does not even like the business.

But it does show the last function of a paper newspaper. That is as the mouthpiece of a man who wants to show he is rich enough to own one. Sure, you could probably win the America's Cup for a bit less than The Washington Post cost, but which of them gives you the greater bragging rights? Which of them ensures that politicians will listen to your suggestions respectfully? And some American politicians really are worth what you pay for them.

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