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The unlikely rebirth of the newspaper

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Nearly six years ago, The Economist asked ‘Who killed the newspaper?‘. The answer was ‘the internet’, which offered free news and comment from here, there and everywhere.

Sales of print versions are in decline – down by ten per cent for UK broadsheets in 2011, and five per cent for tabloids. However, the titles have risen up from their deathbed, transformed themselves, and in many cases are in rude health.

The Daily Mail recently became the world’s most-read online newspaper (overtaking the New York Times), due in no small part to the Kardashian/TOWIE/paparazzi photo-filled abomination that dominates the right-hand side of the page. It makes money, too.

Newspapers have risen up from their deathbed, transformed themselves, and in many cases are in rude health

The Guardian‘s podcasts and blogs helped its website to become the fifth most-read English language newspaper site in the world, boosted by its dedicated US edition – yet doesn’t make enough money to compensate for plummeting sales of the print edition (down 14% in 2011). The Times went down the alternative route – it went behind a paywall and been a qualified success.

The Times‘ method would seem to be an obvious route for a loss-making newspaper websites, but would reverse one of the positive developments of the internet age – the ability to get your news from different sources, with different points of view.

However, the Dutch seem to have found a happy medium. Last week, three of the Netherlands’ biggest newspaper publishers announced that they would create a Spotify-type service – a digital kiosk – where readers can buy articles on-demand and build their own newspaper from seven newspapers. A similar service has worked in Slovenia.

Quality journalism does not come for free

This is a positive development. Quality journalism does not come for free; consumers may like free news, but the inevitable end point is a reduction in the diversity of reporting as (profitable) populist views dominate. Such schemes also help to expose people to views that don’t necessarily fit neatly with their world view – by pushing a variety of content, people are more likely to read a range of opinions, something that does not always happen when Left and Right visit only the websites of their ‘own’ papers.

Hopefully such a scheme could also work in the competitive – even cut-throat – realm of British journalism. By employing the right model, it could also re-invigorate the regional press (dying out in print form and lacking somewhat in its online offering) by including a local newspaper of choice in the mix. Including newspapers from other countries would be an interesting option too.

Such ideas – and many others across Europe – are helping to prove The Economist‘s prognosis wrong (or at least only partially right). And that is, for our culture and our democracy, a good thing.

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