In the same way that the book distribution model is doomed to extinction (as has already happened in the music industry), newspapers are facing many of the same problems. Traditionalists are still wedded to their grubby, inky broadsheets but not for much longer. The internet is providing increasingly strong competition, not just from electronic versions of traditional newspapers but in the form of web-based newspapers, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks.
People are now used to getting their news in a more personal and tailored fashion, which is both a good and a bad thing. It promotes choice but it also breeds parochialism. I can think of some acquaintances who are not in the slightest interested in the wider world and prefer to live in their own carefully constructed electronic world of friends, hashtags and Likes. This, ultimately, leads to prejudice and intolerance.
Newspapers are now having a tough time. More and more are hiding behind paywalls which, ultimately, can be counterproductive. The papers in the world with that have the highest profile and are most quoted are the ones that still allow free web access, including RSS support.
Here in Britain we see a clear distinction between those papers in front of and those behind a paywall. To read internet comment you would think there were only three newspapers: The Telegraph, The Mail and The Guardian. That's because you can read them online, link and share to your heart's content. The Telegraph is currently attempting to construct a paywall and, if successful, the result it will also disappear from isight.
Living behind the wall
News International's The Times has already disappeared from view behind its lofty wall. Once called The Thunderer because a well-penned editorial could bring down a government, The Times is now barely a whisperer. I subscribe to the paper because I am on an old and good-value contract of £2 a week for seven editions, including the Sunday Times.
It is unequivocally worthwhile at this price but I am ready to cancel if an increase is suggested. For one thing, I find it incredibly frustrating to be unable to share or link, even for my own later consumption. The only way to grab a quote for sharing is to do a screenshot; and there is then no chance of linking back to the article. I tolerate it because it is cheap and a good read, but it is ultimately frustrating and unworthy.
There is another reason. Newspapers cater for all interests and, as such, contain a great deal of gash information that you would not consider downloading given the choice. I don't like sport, for instance, so sports sections are the first to go. In fact, out of a typical edition I read the news (skipping lots that doesn't appeal) and the business sections and not much else. Some people, I know, read only sport, but that is a matter of choice that is denied to the buyer of a general-interest newspaper.
Rock and a hard place
While arguing the benefits of free distribution, I can accept the problems faced by the newspapers. Traditional advertising is drying up and the internet is taking the lion's share of revenue, spearheaded by Google. Our newspapers are between a rock and a hard place. If they remain visible and quotable they risk losing revenue. If they hide behind a paywall, their international presence and awareness will dwindle.
On the other hand we need newspapers, not only to provide the vehicle for the collection of news but also to offer impartiality and responsibility. If our news consumption is confined to the irresponsibilities of Twitter and other social networks we will see the rise of minority prejudice and downright lies will be accepted as fact. We need our newspapers and periodicals for informed comment as well as for news.