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Adapt and survive

March 2014 

When two or three newspaper writers are gathered together, especially if they are over 50, there tends to be a lot of glum talk about how the internet is killing their industry.  Sales of printed newspapers are declining, the senior writers are being laid off.  The evil web is leaving nowhere for the poor scribbler to earn his crust.

What is actually happening is that we are simply returning to normal; what the internet has done is to remove the monopoly that newspapers had become used to, and their ability to make easy money has gone with it.  Tough, but it comes to all industries eventually; just ask the hansom cab makers.

Despite this gloom, there is actually more writing published nowadays than ever before, it’s just that most of it is published on the internet, and earns the writers very little, if anything ;  a seemingly successful independent website might generate just enough to support a couple of people, but no more. 

Is this new?  Well, as so often, I find that we’ve been here before.  Students of the history of newspapers will recognise the pattern. 

I’ve been reading the recollections of a very young journalist in the 1930s; he started on the grand sounding Leeds Guardian, but he doubled the staff numbers by joining; when he moved to the much bigger Driffield Times, he was half the staff there as well.  Two men wrote it all. 

Crucially, they loved the work and didn’t expect much in return; he wrote that "even successful journalists in those days couldn’t afford a car" but his father, a builders’ merchant, could.  This placed us journalists at a pretty humble level, and the internet is sending us back there.  Not a bad thing to happen, from time to time, to any trade or profession; it teaches humility (and it’s about time it happened to lawyers). 

The plain fact is that the chill economic wind that the internet tends to blow has been bringing journalism back to where it was 100 years ago.  The interim period, (wealthy proprietors, well paid writers, high advertising rates) was simply an aberration. 

In 1930, if you owned a print works, owning a newspaper was one way of bringing regular work for your presses, and as newspapers were the only route to the news, they sold well enough.  There were hundreds, if not thousands, of very local newspapers reporting very local events; they were profitable, but only just – seldom supporting more than a couple of ill-paid writers.

These long dead two-man newspapers now have an internet descendent:  the special interest news website; they exist in their thousands and are growing in number.  They are often run by just one or two people, and may generate some income from advertising, they may sell some products and receive a commission, but except for the handful of successes (Guido Fawkes,, Huffington Post) the vast majority exist mainly as exercises in survival, or to simply promote the writers to prospective employers. 

However, people always like local news, so here's my idea for someone’s next big internet fortune: build up a chain of very local based news websites, working just as the local weekly newspaper in the 1930's did, with high editorial standards (accuracy and good writing) but simply reporting local news: local magistrates cases, recent wills, all local sports, business and politics.  Encourage local people to submit as much as they like; reports of every school match or local fete.  Keep costs low by centralising the publishing mechanism (on the internet it doesn’t matter where you are).  Become the local site of record and you’ll quickly grab lots of local advertising. 

No writer would get rich, but they’d survive, and as Dr Johnson said, “the purpose of a writer is to be read”.