There was a time when having a job as a paper-boy was the Gold Standard of juvenile employment. Up before dawn in all weathers, a hasty brekkers then off to the nearby — it was always nearby in those days — paper shop to pick up a bag that weighed about 25lbs at a minimum and then as fast-a run around the streets as possible putting papers through letterboxes. Home to get ready for school and ten bob in your pocket on Saturday. A small fortune. My career as a delivery-boy was cut short by a family move but it was, sort of, fun while it lasted.
The last time I was in a UK paper shop was about 13 years ago and Sid, the avuncular proprietor who was a fund of wisdom on everything from the relative safety of different types of nuclear reactor to the importance of worms (yes really in both cases) — had read the writing on the wall. ‘Computers’ said Sid. He was right.
The writing on my personal wall came when the Indie went digital, never to appear in print again. Or hard copy as we are wont to say today. The dear old Independent. I bought the first edition and read it alongside the Guardian every day. The last was printed on 26th March this year and yes, there was a twinge of sadness, an era truly was passing before my eyes. The Guardian will go the same way, probably in the not far distant future.
What has happened is that The Walking Dead have conquered. An entire generation has stopped buying and reading newspapers. The social media is where they get their news. They are watching less TV news as well, and Facebook is the most powerful force to be seen in global news. It commands vast audiences, appears in the language-of-choice and is free-to-air. What’s not to like?
News has become a commodity like any other. Amazon does news. News is a part of our social structures rather than something we make a conscious effort to acquire, more it is absorbed by an osmotic process to become a part of fraaaandship. None of this challenging stuff that involves sitting with a smudgy piece of unwieldy paper and actually reading of the events of the day, taking in the complicated ideas that go with the op-ed pages. Dear me no none of that. News comes like toffees in bite sized chunks.
Print newspapers the world over are withering and many have already died having failed to adapt. Adapt or die goes the old saying. Too damn right. Advertising, the lifeblood of most newspapers, is moving online and there is only so much to go around and if the markets are reading their smart devices and not their newspapers then that is where the advertisers are going to put their money — and reap their profits.
The same challenges exist in Pakistan as elsewhere, certainly in the English language press, and the majority of people who read this column worldwide will have read it online, not in the paper they bought from a street vendor.
Printing anything in volume is a large complex and labour-intensive operation. It requires expensive plant, skilled personnel, a large building and a functioning set of reliable and affordable utilities and consumables to keep it afloat. It also needs to sell what comes out the other end of the presses. The comparison may be a tad invidious but at least theoretically a newspaper can be run online almost as a backroom operation. Content generated by a workforce that could be worldwide and working from home, paying for its own internet connections, coffee, sandwiches and TV channels. The cost of overheads drops like a stone. Trades unions? Fergeddit. Collective bargaining for a fair wage? Well maybe, but essentially a ‘paper could be outsourced to freelancers, filled with externally generated content and staffed on the human side by a core group of digital manipulators.
Bleak it may be, especially for those of us that remember being paper boys or girls, but there is an inexorable force at work and whatever Golden Age print enjoyed is never going to come again. Golden Ages never do. Tootle-pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, December 22nd, 2016.