Five months ago yesterday, something strange happened in the world of newspapers.
One was launched.
Without – at the time – a website.
The New European was intended to have a life of just four weeks: a pop-up newspaper created as anger and angst mounted over the result of the June 23 referendum.
But, well into December, and as that anger and angst continues to simmer, it’s still going strong.
As I said shortly after its launch, it’s bucked a trend of print closures, considerably outliving two other launches: the nine-week New Day experiment, and the six-week 24 newspaper.
It does now have a proper news website.
But it still uses that online presence to signpost people to its premium product: the print edition.
So what does the success of the New European tell us?
And is it a sign that media organisations ought to put more effort into print?
What the New European has done is corner a market that is real. Unlike New Day and 24, it has chutzpah, character and confidence – as well as a niche home where people with money exist.
The idea that news organisations are pursuing a mirage by pinning all their hopes on digital advertising has been developing some decent traction in recent months.
At our university’s recent media festival, veteran sports writer Patrick Barclay insisted that the resurgence of premium-priced, high quality newspapers was just around the corner.
And today, outgoing Brighton Argus editor Mike Gilson makes a powerful plea for the press to shout its virtues from the rooftops – and to start investing in quality print journalism. It’s well worth a read.
Across the Atlantic, the print-only concept is explored convincingly in this piece in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review.
It comes down to this.
Despite everything, revenue from print still outstrips that from digital by – depending on who you talk to – a factor of between three and four.
And yet some of those print products – certainly at regional level – are hollowed-out shadows of their former selves, thrown together almost apologetically despite skilled and dedicated staff, with faceless arms-length subbing hubs leading to quality corners being cut on a weekly basis.
The counterintuitive, contrarian, argument is that more newspapers should be print-only, with existing websites shut and/or new launches having no online presence.
But could it work?
I’m not so sure.
Not for regional daily papers, anyway. Most are in irreversible decline for a myriad of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with content.
Our time-poor lives are against them, along with socioeconomic changes such as the decline of traditional manufacturing, with its factory gate traditions and community ties, and our online food shopping habits.
Shedding or downgrading a website will do nothing here, I fear – and would fly in the face of some genuine, if at times fickle, demand.
It would also fly in the face of the reality that our children will never consume news in the way that we do, or did.
I’m not sure that a lot of weeklies would be helped either.
Most weeklies are still not drilling down deep enough into the minutiae of local life
The battle for people’s precious time is less intense here, but that void would still be filled by another media source.
In fact, today sees news that a weekly in South Yorkshire is going web-only after 140 years of print production.
But most importantly, most weeklies are still not drilling down deep enough into the minutiae of local life, or covering natural communities.
Where print-only does make huge sense is in the hyperlocal world of micro-coverage, rammed with names and street-level detail.
If you’re going to get people to buy your product, you need to be offering something valuable that isn’t available anywhere else – in print or online.
Despite our increasingly transient populations, our busy lives and our reduced community involvement, there remains an appetite for news.
I nearly hugged one of my neighbours last night when he told me that he and his wife had started buying our local weekly because they felt out of touch with what was going on in our town.
But that news has to be right stuff, with the right detail.
That neighbour had gone looking for a story about the closure of a local landmark business – one I had flagged up to the paper’s news desk.
He couldn’t find it – and neither could I.
Unless we can organise our resources to offer unbeatable truly local news coverage, print-only will be just another mirage.