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Andrew Marr discusses the threat to print from the new media

Andrew MarrAndrew Marr
BBC News

As people find new ways to access news in a post-print world, so the demands on those that deliver it is changing, says Andrew Marr, and this new media age could bring with it a better, more rigorous kind of journalism.

The winds of media revolution are gusting fiercely.

In the past few days we have the Guardian’s estimate of a near 90% drop in the online readership of its rival, the Times, since the pay wall went up; and Amazon’s announcement that sales of digital books for its e-reader Kindle are outstripping hardback books in the US, at the rate of 143 e-books for every 100 hardbacks over the past three months.

I just wanted to follow up my earlier “conversion confession” on this site.

These two whirling straws were given perfect context at a seminar on Tuesday by John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe and a fabled figure in the Silicon Valley story. Speaking at Nottingham University’s computer science school, he predicted a cascade of new iPad-like tablets in many sizes arriving by the end of this year, producing turmoil for cinemas (which will mostly go), bookshops (ditto), and broadcasters.

Hollywood now gets just 15% of its revenue from cinema releases, while newspaper publishers find their traditional strengths – expensive printing plants and sophisticated distribution chains – have become merely costs.

Book publishers ask what they bring to the new party. A public has emerged which doesn’t watch traditional sequential television, or even understands the notion of “channels”.

I’ve just come back from Washington where I was doing interviews with grandee journalists and historians in the wood-panelled magnificence of the city’s National Press Club.

But downstairs, in the coffee bar, everyone seemed to reading on iPads and phones. Getting into the lift and returning to street level felt like time-travelling, from the Age of the Press, to tablet-world.

But getting back to the big question, which is the future for journalism, two things struck me. The first is that I’ve started to spend quite a lot on buying online reading material, from books and magazines to news material; and that the quality’s pin-sharp, easy on the eye and addictive.

This leads me to think that perhaps Rupert Murdoch’s pay wall gamble is a better bet than the Guardian figures currently suggest; but that the proposition will need to be redefined.

People pay for magazines, television channels, DVDs and endless apps. The notion that they shouldn’t ever pay for news is actually quite bizarre and a historic anomaly.

I’m interested in politics, social policy, business, technology and the arts. I am not interested in sport, fashion, property, crime stories or celebrity.

In this new world, where I’m being sold new propositions, I no longer see why I should buy material I’m not interested in, just because it’s been bundled up by one publisher rather than another. Am I alone? I’ll pay. I’ll buy. But I want to be more discriminating.

Fast food, fast news

The second thought is that journalism may be on the edge of a great new age. How good have we been, honestly, at telling the truth to the powerful? When a crisis blows up, or a problem of deep complexity has to be confronted, few reporters have the specialist knowledge or time to really confront government, or a company.

Further, the daily competition for newness – always on to the next story, the next headline – means the media’s attention span has been limited. Too rarely do we return to stories that have “faded away” and ask, what happened next?

Our appetite for long-term campaigning and focus fritters away. Fast news has had the same effect on our minds as fast food has had on our physiques.

The next media age may be differently configured. We may have a group of very large “aggregators” bringing busy people the most important new news of the day, rather as now, but there will be fewer of them.

But underneath that, we will have large numbers of specialist news sites – for specific companies or sectors, for different environmental issues, for overseas crises – which bring together journalists, academics, specialists, campaigners, professionals, lobbyists and so on. These will be where the expertise and longer-term attention span will be found.

They will pile the pressure onto the powerful, and keep asking the questions. And from time to time their work will break upwards, to the aggregators (we need a better word) and the global headlines.

Or so I hope. There’s the real chance of a better kind of journalism in all this; something to comfort ourselves with as we pad to the bookshop, or head for the cinema while it’s still there.

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