Between 1995 and 2015, Alan Rusbrider was the Editor in Chief of The Guardian.
He was, by many accounts, the best editor that the paper had ever had. Bold, fearless, a journalists' journalist. He also oversaw the paper at a moment of enormous turmoil in the newspaper industry - the rise of the Internet.
Rusbridger has just published a book about those tumultous days entitled BREAKING NEWS: THE REMAKING OF JOURNALISM AND WHY IT MATTERS NOW (Canongate, 464 pages).
The title, breaking news, refers not just to the traditional term, now so freely bandied about on every cable news channel no matter what the 'breaking news' story is, but also to the deeply detrimental impact that the web had and continues to have on newspapers and in that, on public discourse around the world.
In an excellent analysis of the book in The London Review of Books, James Meek makes clear that no one in the newspaper business in the early 90's really grasped the life-threatening risk that the rising web formed for the traditional newspaper business model.
"There was no shortage of people in the business who understood that things were about to change. But it was hard to predict what the change would look like, let alone how destructive the process would be to the old order. This was an era when the Guardiantoyed with the idea of buying each of its readers a printer to print the newspaper for themselves at home. The internet was well established by 1997, but usage hadn’t taken off. Some newspapers had basic websites, but few visited them. The dominant mode of accessing the internet was the slow and inconvenient dial-up method; few home users had broadband connections. Pictures loaded line by line. It could take minutes. Even if there had been a YouTube, home computers wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to stream the clips on it."
Yet in only a few short years, the web would go on to eviscerate the financial underpinnings of the newspaper business, effectively destroying many newspapers and deeply damaging those that managed to survive.
It became clearly understood that, in the words of Stewart Brand, information wanted to be free. Free information is fine, until you have to pay the journalists, or fire them, which is what many newspapers did, and continue to do to this day. The NY Daily News, in July of this year, laid off half of their editorial staff. It's a kind of death spiral around the drain - cut the editorial staff, reduce the content, reduce the reason to buy the paper, reduce the circulation, reduce advertising fees and then back to firing more editorial staff.
Today, the Guardian has a circulation of 138,000, fully one third of what it was when the Internet first began to impact papers. In Rusbridger's last year of stewardship, the paper lost £173 million. That's just not a sustainable business.
In the early days of the web, the Internet did not pose so clear a threat to the newspaper business - dial up speeds were agonizingly slow. Paper was faster. But as online speeds increased, it was the physical paper that seemed archaic.
Now we come to television and video.
What the Internet did to newspapers a decade or two ago, it is now going to do to conventional broadcast TV. That is, kill it.
A piece in today's Wall Street Journal entitled The Future of Television - Binge Watching Is Only The Beginning, makes the point that the advent of broadband (and soon to arrive 5G) means that you can now download complete movies (or multiple TV series) in seconds, and watch them when you want. How can linear TV compete with that? It can't.
"Netflix has since grown from 34 million paid memberships in 40 countries to 130 million in more than 190 countries. Competing services such as Amazon Prime Video and Hulu have experienced similarly explosive growth, and successful cable channels have seen their business shift increasingly to a streaming, on-demand model. Apple has significant plans for original content in the works, but perhaps the biggest development on the horizon is Disney’s direct-to-consumer service, coming in late 2019. After the Walt Disney Company’s purchase of the entertainment assets of 21st Century Foxis complete, it will own an approximate 60 percent share of Hulu and will control an SVOD (subscription video on demand) portfolio that includes Hulu, ESPN+ and a Disney-branded subscription service called Disney+ that will be home to content from Disney, Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and National Geographic. Disney+ will be global, and Disney intends to expand Hulu—currently available only in the U.S.—to international markets. Almost everything Disney companies have made in the past, and everything they’ll make in the future, will eventually end up on their streaming service."
The advent of the web did not destroy newspapers completely. They still limp along, the survivors at least, albeit mere shadows of their once glory and power, The Sunday Edition of The New York Times once weighed in at an astonishing 12 pounds - most of it advertising. Today's business section, barely six pages and almost no ads.
Conventinal TV networks no doubt are soon to follow suit.