Giving up on print: Britain's national daily The Independent stops the presses

After decades of predictions that print newspapers are doomed, it should come as no shock, but still: I was caught off guard by the announcement that Britain's national daily The Independent is giving up on print. 

The Independent's first editionThe UK newspaper scene is structurally quite different from that of the United States; local newspapers exist alongside multiple big dailies that are distributed nationally. Newsstand sales, not home delivery, predominates. And there is a sharp distinction between "quality" papers, historically broadsheets, and sensational, trashy "red-top" papers, traditionally tabloid in size, aimed pretty much at people whose lips move when they read, if they actually read at all.

Almost 20 years ago, I spoke at a London conference called NetMedia. Those "quality" national dailies were vigorous then. The Independent, still young, was flanked by The Guardian on the left and The Times and the Telegraph on the right. All of us, regardless of political leanings, were intensely interested in the coming wave of online journalism.

A South African newspaper, the News and Mail, covered the conference and quoted me:

At this month’s NetMedia conference at City University, London, he said: “I think the electronic environment gives us the chance to combine the substance of a metropolitan newspaper with the timeliness of a radio station and the visual appeal of television.”

However, even he admits that “right now that the number one attraction of Star Tribune Online isn’t the fine-quality journalism, or the cool animated graphics, or the brilliant photography. It’s the classified ads. They consistently outdraw sports, politics, the arts and crime.”

Classified ads! Imagine that. Pretty much gone today from US newspapers, thanks to Craigslist. Along with many readers and a great deal of display advertising.

The BBC reported that The Independent's print circulation had fallen from a high of more than 400,000 to around 56,000 at the end. The moderate Independent was always the weakest of the quality dailies; even today the Times boasts a circulation equal to the Independent's historic peak. It would be a mistake to spin the Independent's decline as purely driven by the Internet. Clearly there are other business and journalistic factors. But equally clearly we're seeing a culling of the herd as revenues become scarce and readers migrate to other places to spend their time, their attention, and their money.

Those who imagine deep-pocket billionaires will save print journalism should pay attention. Alexander Lebedev, a Russian billionaire banker and former KGB agent, bought The Independent in 2010 -- for one pound Sterling, plus the usual assumption of various obligations. (Lebedev is no longer consider a billionaire.) He also owns the Evening Standard, a free local London newspaper, which he also bought for £1. It is my experience that rich people get that way by accumulating money, not by dispersing it.

Print, regardless of what Bill Gates has occasionally predicted, is still around. The abominable Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and The Sun circulate in the neighborhood of one to two million copies. Across the United States, printed newspapers may be struggling with declines in circulation and national ad revenue, but local revenues in some cases are actually up. This is not the apocalypse -- but it is, without a doubt, an important milepost in a journey toward a very different future. And for those of us still printing, it is a reminder to redouble our efforts to build that future.

(Photo: The Independent's first issue, October 7, 1986)