Feature: Is The UK Print Press Dying?

Aidan Lomas

After a short gander through the internet, I discovered that the UK used to have a national student newspaper — unimaginatively called the National Student — which operated for seventeen years before closing its doors in August 2019. As I strong advocate for Print Press, from the patience-testing tabloids to the (…sometimes…) reliable broadsheets, I want everyone in the UK back on to newspapers and magazines. However, with the rise of the internet as less of a ‘here’s some free online games’ arenato more of a ‘here’s some free online news’ market, it’s fair to say I may be on the losing side of history.

The Press Gazette which monitors British journalism has observed a sharp decline in sales of local UK newspaper since the commencement of the Coronavirus pandemic. P.Donnelly/BBC

You see, I was one of those weird kids when I was younger; it’s something I hold with great pride nowadays. I wasn’t desperate to become the next David Beckham, nor was I fearlessly flirtatious with the opposite sex. Instead, my favourite part of a Friday night was ‘Have I Got News for You’ and then, unsurprising, the Ten O’Clock News itself. Knowing what was going on in the world around me was more important than knowing how to be good at sport, or how to be “cool”. Naturally, as I grew up, I realised I not only liked the news, but I liked reading about it. Even today, despite the fact I could easily find out more by simply opening my phone, I inspect the front pages of all the newspapers when I enter any shop. The simple presence of these newspapers in the shops would suggest that in fact the Print Press isn’t dying. But like many things, as our generation grows older, I doubt it’s something that will carry on. But am I right?

Let’s take a minute to remember the single most important public inquiry of the century; the Leveson Inquiry of 2011-2012. Ordered by David Cameron, this inquiry focused on the ethics of the media. Ignited by the News of the World phone hacking scandal, it became a sensational display of corruption, callousness, and, most of all, demonstrated that financial motives of the Press had definitively overshadowed the — more important — moral imperatives. The Leveson inquiry,  considered to be the single most impactful cause of the decline of Print Press — another one of Piers Morgan’s ‘finest’ moments — showed that the tabloids and their low-skilled journalists can be morally absent but schemingly present. Its story is adversely similar to that of the Nobel Peace Prize; despite the fact Alfred Nobel’s most renowned patent was Dynamite, a means of blowing big holes in the Earth, his name is most famously associated with the Scandinavian awards which feature his name. In the case of the Print Press, people forget about the regulatory reliability of printing words in a hardcopy, but instead focus on the fact the writers can write absolute bull*hit if it will make their proprietors’ pockets deeper. Despite the inquiry being held exactly ten years ago, it’s still heralded by many around the UK as the final nail in Print Press’s coffin; people simply stopped trusting newspapers full stop, and their printed nature was something taken down with them. However, despite the calamities and consequences caused by Rupert Murdoch’s money making machine, I still believe that the Print Press is a valuable institution in British and Irish society today; but do people agree with me? It’s hard to tell.

For a few centuries, the newspaper industry was the main source of information for many people across the socio-economic divide. From the gold-leafed gazettes read by the Royals to the chip-shop charters enjoyed by the Workers, the Print Press was the universal source of information for all in the land of many ‘acquired’ lands. The primary driver of this mass circulation was, of course, due to the fact Sir Tim Berners-Lee hadn’t yet coded the internet into existence. Since the advent of Social Media, meanwhile, the journalistic world has gone evangelically Digital; like fish to bait, only the wiser propagators avoided the digital demesne. With it’s infuriating pop-ads and aesthetically poor quality, digital news is a lingering pain in the sides of many. However, even as I’m writing this, it’s the news app on my phone that’s keeping me up to date with what’s going on across the country and wider world. Yet, for some unknown reason, — considering I’m of the digital generation and, therefore, I’m stereotypically supposed to like nothing more than blue light, blue words, and ‘barely news’ news— I still favour newspapers, magazines, and written reports over televisual, tweeted, or spoken news; albeit when the words are written by a reliable journalist and not a random person on twitter with a football club’s logo as their profile picture.

Sadly, nonetheless, national newspaper circulation is in a definite decline. It was found in 2018 that the national newspapers saw a 52% reduction in sales since 2010 and this downwards dive remains on its steep descent. However, just because national newspapers — which include those morally questionable tabloids let’s not forget — are in decline doesn’t necessarily mean that the print industry is on its deathbed entirely; perhaps its more like a retiree realising the old peoples’ home is right around round the corner and so is their residency there. Between April 2019 and March 2020, 42.1 Million people received their news through magazines. That’s around 62% of the population; hardly a suggestion of an industry’s death? To put that in perspective, only 67% of voters turned out for the 2019 General Election.

Once the paper of the UK streets, the News Of The World ceased printing over ten years ago, in July 2011, following the association of its journalists with the phone hacking scandal. This was just one scandal which did no favours for print journalism. P. Donnelly

A study by the media watchdog OFCOM found that, in 2020, the Television remained the dominant source of news for most people (75%), whilst Social Media saw a slight decline. However, when rated for their reliability, it was magazines which came out on top. Meanwhile, sadly for civilisation, random and unregulated websites were seen to be more reliable than Social Media; looks like those Covid hoaxers and moon landing deniers have won this one. This hallow-victory may not remain the case, however, as 12-15 year olds reported finding family conversations, the radio, and the television as more reliable than Social Media; there’s still hope it would seem. 

Like France’s Blaise Pascal with God, I’d wager that the Print Press isn’t dying after all; it is instead regenerating itself. If there’s anything to take away from the nature of Press over the past decade, it’s that the unregulated ‘finances over facts’ Social Media experiment is coming to an end. Like the Ford Nucleon of 1957, the period of pushing the boundaries of what’s safe and what’s ‘Chernobyl-like’ is closing its doors. It’s no surprise to me, however, that Social Media in general remains heavily engaged with; after all, this article will be shared on Facebook and the irony of it splits my soul like a Horcrux.

Social Media’s influence over the common person is immense, but at least its ability to spit out questionable facts and guide people’s often baseless opinions is seemingly a thing of the past. With more young people trusting the words they read, and less people paying attention to the words their surprisingly racist relative posts online, it would seem my love of Print Press might be emulated in the generations to come. Am I holding out for this to be true? I’ll have to embrace the News of the World approach on that one.

Editorial Note

Peter Donnellly

Had Aidan published this feature on the future of the print media ten years ago, the most appropriate term to describe one the influence of its immediate rival – the internet – would have been that medium’s ‘growing influence’ over popular thought and opinion. In 2021, however, social media’s influence has not only grown it has accelerated to by-pass the print media to become the dominant strain of contemporary media. Despite the nostalgic, tangible attachment to the physical copy of a newspaper – a sentiment with which I hold and empathise with – there is always the unwelcoming, lingering feeling that ‘the paper’ will, in the not so distant future, be a thing of days gone by. It is a formidable task to bestow justice upon the print media’s influence.

From the first presses Europe – notably Germany’s 15th Century ‘Gutenberg press’ on the cusp of The Reformation- who then could have imagined the value those parchments of print paper would have for the future history of the World? It has impacted on all aspects of life. A niche example of the newspaper’s value occurs to me as someone who regularly researches history and genealogy. The stories and anecdotes that the newspaper recorded over the centuries, especially in a place with such a complex and contested history as Ireland, is phenomenal. Although the print press may be entering its final chapters in the pages of history its value and worth, which has arguably been the biggest catalysts for change for almost six centuries, will remain for centuries to come.

Text accompanying images within this article are to be attributed to the Editor, Peter Donnelly.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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