Today is the final print edition of one of the newspapers I read weekly, ‘The Independent’. I buy it every Saturday and Sunday along with The Telegraph and The Guardian and every now and again The Times. I have very mixed feelings because on one hand it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to ensure they are financially viable (of course it would be far, far worse for them to simply go out of business) and transfer to a digital only edition purchasable on a subscription basis, but on the other hand, I love the experience of reading the paper out in the open and I have several ‘spots’ that I go to where there is a certain level of peace, quiet and solitude (i.e. not the coffee shop) and I can relax and enjoy flicking through the pages and reading the articles. I spend far too much time as it is staring at screens all week, and I also have spent a lot of time over the last two years or so reducing the amount I am reliant on subscriptions and direct debits and all that stuff. So as much as it pains me to say, because I love the paper so much and by far it is my favourite, I am not convinced I will subscribe and read it digitally. Truthfully, I haven’t made my mind up yet.
I am writing this blog for another reason. It is for the guilt I feel in being part of the cause the newspaper has to go digital. I don’t think my personal actions have had any impact on their decision, don’t worry, I’ve not gone crazy, but it’s the principle behind what I do, multiplied by tens of thousands of times that has slowly eroded the profitability of non-subscription news. For quite a few years now I have been sharing the articles I read online. I can’t remember how it started but at some point perhaps as long ago as 2010 I started to post some of the more interesting articles I enjoyed. As I bought the papers every week it became a regular thing. I found myself marking the pages I enjoyed, or ripping them out, and then when I had finished reading them all some time late on a Sunday afternoon, I would go back to all the articles I had marked, look them up online (this was back when even The Times was free to access) and share them on Facebook. Over time, I became quicker at reading the papers (I read every Saturday and Sunday edition cover to cover including every supplement and magazine – yes, cars, property and ‘Saga Holiday Specials’ too as you never knew when an interesting article may appear – and as you can imagine it took a few hours to start with), it became part of my routine and before I knew it I didn’t even think twice about it. I didn’t think of the impact of my actions at all, it was just a fun thing for me to do. I’d enjoy getting the odd comment and response on an article and having the odd debate or argument when I sided differently to someone. The thing is, I should make clear, I only ever shared ‘art & literature’ articles, not that that makes any real difference but it’s just to show I did it for a purpose. All of my social media pages are set up for my interest in writing so I only shared pieces I thought would be of interest to people following me who in the main would also be interested in writing. I didn’t just share the whole lot, it wasn’t just a wholesale cut’n’paste job. It was the pieces I enjoyed (well, actually not enjoyed, for instance I never ‘enjoyed’ sharing an obituary, but it was more I enjoyed the article because it had a pedagogic element that I thought would in some way benefit being read by people, even if it was due to a sad or upsetting reason) which after a while, because as I said I became quicker, would be around 20 articles give or take (in total, from all three papers and both Sat & Sun).
As you can see, I’m getting the excuses out; a typically guilty response! When The Independent announced they were stopping their print editions (about six weeks ago or so is when I read it I think) it made me think about my contribution to this somewhat inevitable evolution of digitalization.
First, let me say why I stopped buying The Times. It’s very simple. They introduced a subscription service. So you couldn’t read their articles online unless you paid. It didn’t bother me initially as I bought them in print anyway, it’s the way I enjoy reading newspapers (I love reading fiction on digital readers or ereaders just as much as I love reading them in print for the record – they both offer their own pleasures and benefits) but then after a while I realised I couldn’t share any articles as people who clicked on them wouldn’t be able to read them unless they had a subscription, which for the most part they wouldn’t have. So I started to think of reading The Times as a waste because as much as I enjoyed it, I couldn’t pass it on. Eventually, I kept to the other three I mentioned. The Telegraph soon introduced a limit on the amount of free articles a website visitor could access without buying their subscription, I can’t remember exactly how many now, but it was still enough that if I shared a handful people who clicked on the link could read them.
The financial impact of me sharing articles never occurred to me. Not really, not in any significant way. I assumed it was just a minor thing that was part and parcel of the digital and social media age. People won’t pay for the Internet…
I never thought that I would be directly responsible for people not buying the physical papers, that in some way they could access what they want to without the need to buy their own print copy or click through countless adverts online. First of all, I’m a nobody in the online world, I have hardly any followers, I don’t have any fan sites or forums or anything that could remotely be seen as having an impact on peoples’ decisions; I was just a drop in the ocean. Then a friend commented recently that I have had over a million hits on my Google+ page (one of the platforms I share the articles on) and it made me think that although as an individual I don’t have an impact; the culture of my thinking, of my decisions, of my assumptions are far wider reaching and it’s not that hard to contemplate the snowball effect… a thousand nobodies like me share articles… what about the worldwide sites that have a serious amount of followers who also share articles… the automated social media feeds… the gossip sites… and so on.
If you think of the combined effect of sharing, then my insignificant amount of followers becomes a bigger problem. I have absolutely no idea how these things are calculated so I am about to present a totally unscientific and mathematically irresponsible sum, sorry, it’s just to highlight a point: Let’s just say that 1% of those million hits may have been from repeat visitors, from people who have a serious interest in keeping up to date with the news and reading art and literature articles. That would be 10,000 hits. Let’s say that is solely from 10 people. Let’s just say, for invalid arguments sake that 10 people regularly follow me every Sunday to read the articles I share. That would be approx. £150 I am taking out of the newspapers income every weekend. That is also 10 people who are not looking at their physical adverts and also navigating the website in order to find these articles and adding pennies into the ad revenues. That is every week. If we say they have done that for two years, that’s £15,600.
Now that equation is rubbish because as I said it’s as loose a calculation as you ever find but it was just a thought explained in numbers. It’s meaningless as evidence but just stick with me for one more moment. It is meant to show that the cumulative effect of sharing a paid-for-service, for free. I repeat, I’m a nobody. But imagine if I had not just a million hits, but a million followers! A million real living breathing people and I shared just one single article. All those people would be getting that article for free and that in itself is not a bad thing, in one sense, it’s marketing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where everyone said, ‘I really enjoyed that article, I must buy that product next time,’… But of course in reality, that’s not how it works. Now, I am not saying that people would have bought that product (or newspaper in this example) in the first place. I am not saying that by sharing things we are directly stopping someone from going to a shop and purchasing it in person. All I am saying is that once I stopped and thought about it, I understood that my weekly habit of sharing articles is not as innocent and as harmless as I first thought. It doesn’t take much of a progression to see why such possible dramatic losses of income means it becomes impossible to fund a national newspaper to the level of first rate global journalism required and the changes that papers such as The Times have already made are only a matter of time for everyone else.
I don’t know if I will continue sharing articles after this week. One of the reasons I enjoyed sharing the articles is that they came from three different sources so I didn’t feel like I was promoting any one particular agenda. If I start only sharing things from two or possibly even one, then it looks a bit propagandarish doesn’t it? I mean, by sharing an article from The Telegraph (Conservative and on the right) and directly next to it sharing an article from The Independent (Neutral but on the left) surely no one can accuse me of only sharing sources that propagate my personal views? I’m not sure if I feel comfortable continuing if that should change. I’ll have to think, I’m far from making up my mind.
Anyway, whatever happens I wanted to share my thoughts on this issue and understand my own feelings better too. I like sharing and I wasn’t doing anything wrong yet that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact. Our culture changes and we need to change with it and as much as I’ll miss reading the paper in the park, I can’t allow for selfish sentiment. The most important thing is to maintain a free press, first rate investigative journalism, educate the population and promote new culture; things always change and if I have to change the way I access information then that’s just what I have to do, I don’t matter, what matters is that information will always still there to be accesses, no matter in what form.
Enjoy the weekend!