Papering the cracks
Unknown to most readers, there is a rollicking debate going on within journalism: for how much longer will paid-for printed popular newspapers continue to exist? Five years? Fifteen? Indefinitely?
Many people, needless to say, don't buy the apocalyptic tone of the question. Readers will always prefer the feel of a real paper in their hands, they insist, rather than some gadgety substitute. Anyway, they say, the question is based on a fallacy about how history works: radio and cinema survived the coming of TV, didn't they? And all three are thriving in the internet age, right?
We'll see. The question tends to arise because readers globally are abandoning newspapers. (In Ireland the economic boom has masked the process; in China and India, booming economies combined with relatively low internet penetration have seen newspaper circulation skyrocket, bucking the Western trend.) But newspaper enterprises, busy establishing themselves as favoured sources of web-information, have a long-term interest in abandoning paper-and-ink, even if readers want to persist with them.
Lest we forget, the last time the Irish Times invested in a new printing press, just five years ago, an accident of bad economic timing meant that it nearly bankrupted the company and a third of the staff was made redundant. That machinery will be doing well if it's still running in 20 years – at which point, does the company really want to do it all over again?
Meanwhile, more pressing changes are afoot. Over at Independent News and Media, where the Irish Independent's press is just a bit older, chief executive Tony O'Reilly understands that printing is just so 20th-century: “With the exception of the magic of writing and editing news and views... almost every other function, except printing, is location-indifferent. No reader knows where the page is made up. No reader understands or cares about where telesales or marketing is located...” (from a message in INM's 2005 annual report).
Despite O'Reilly's patronising guff about “magic”, he is obviously keen to outsource as many non-printing newspaper functions as possible: page make-up, after all, is traditionally closely allied with copy-editing and is done by journalists. (The two tasks together are known here as sub-editing or subbing.) Journalists at the Irish Independent have been told (warned) that management has successfully experimented with getting subbing done in India.
First World journalists like to believe that their jobs can not be outsourced. But most subbing probably requires only a gloss of local knowledge, easily applied by a skeleton staff back home after the Indians have done the dirty work. And we have allowed much daily reporting to become dangerously deskbound: there are already stories of US local papers who hire faraway freelances requiring no more than a phonebook and broadband to appear plausibly “on the scene”.
I wrote some weeks ago about the wrenching change in the inner culture of newspapers when printing left their editorial premises. That was merely part of a process of dispersal now well advanced. (Much subbing, for example, in the Irish Mirror and Sun takes place outside Dublin; production of commercial supplements in the Irish Independent is outsourced locally.)
Newspapers don't care to shout about this sort of thing. But no amount of magic can hold back a process with such clear economic imperatives. Reuters already has financial journalism for and about Western markets being done in India.
A senior executive in an Indian IT firm said recently that its expanding media unit is targeting Western newspapers and will “get the mechanised and routine stuff [sic] like copy editing before you see the editorial opportunities. We're talking to people who want us to look at layout, for example. That never would have happened before, and it gets us a step closer to the editorial side.”
Meanwhile, job ads offer Indian journalists “work in night shifts (UK shift)” – at wages roughly a fifth of what a British or Irish journalist might earn. Magic, indeed.