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Attention over-thirties: news is now a free for all

NOBODY UNDER THIRTY these days buys a newspaper. It might seem weird to us oldies who still need our daily fix, but they just don't see the need.

 

News is everywhere, for free - on TV, on the radio, on the internet, delivered to your mobile phone. There are also free newspapers like the morning Metro and the afternoon Record. They are an unchallenging read, but just interesting enough to keep the reader distracted for a 20-minute or so commute. But while they are scanning the paper, they are of course being exposed to the advertising content that pays for it all.

 

These free papers seem to be the way of the future. In the last month we have seen the launch of Business7, a weekly Scottish business title from Insider, and Shortlist, a new, free, weekly men's magazine.

 

Metro has extended its Scottish distribution to Tayside, attacking the traditional readership of the Courier, and rumours persist that the publishers of CityAM and the London Paper are interested in launching Scottish editions.

 

The traditional paid-for newspaper has been under threat for some time. Over the last fifty years they have lost their principal role as breakers of news, first to the broadcast media and latterly to the internet.

 

They have largely changed their role to that of packagers of generic features and comment. But this approach might be self defeating, for if the features and comment in your paper could just as easily have been published tomorrow or the day after, then what is the point of a fresh one being printed every day?

 

Readers seem to have got the message, because they are buying fewer and fewer of them. Most newspaper circulations are shrinking by five per cent or more per annum. The Scotsman, for example, is currently struggling to keep its paid circulation above the psychologically important 50,000 level.

 

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, anticipates that the hugely expensive new printing presses installed last year for its attractive all-colour product are likely to be the last they will ever buy. By the time they need replacing in thirty years there will be zero demand for its paid-for paper product.

 

Unfortunately, newspaper publishers' dreams of new subscription revenues via the internet are not being fulfilled. The New York Times has just abandoned its paid-for subscription model; the Financial Times is largely removing its own; and rumours persist that Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, is likely to take down its pay turnstiles. I wonder how long it will be before The Scotsman feels pressured to follow suit.

 

So what is the long-term answer? Blessed if I know. I hoped the emergence of a wholly new futuristic product - electronic 'paper' - where a decent sized, flexible, high-resolution screen with a built-in wireless connection would allow publishers to provide attractive reading for people on the move. It might appeal to the public, or it might fail.

 

I thought that Pointcast was a breakthrough product. It was a screen saver in the early days of the internet which allowed your computer to become a window on which breaking news and interesting articles were displayed automatically. It failed!

 

One thing is for sure, the days of paying for newspapers seem to be numbered.

 

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