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Since The London Gazette, progenitor of the newspaper, was founded in 1665, papers have revealed and interpreted the world around, informing and inciting in equal measure.

 

They provide the foundations not just on which to form opinions and values, but to make everyday decisions, thereby coming to instruct as much as to explain.

But to suggest that this role, which newspapers came to fill, only appeared in the 17th century would be ludicrous; they merely tapped into the perennial, unchanging desire of a sociable and empathic race to know what is happening to others around them.

This desire does not change, but the way in which it is fulfilled constantly does. Newspaper circulation expanded inestimably with the invention of steam-powered printing presses in the Industrial Revolution. 200 years on, the television brought a radically different dimension to news-gathering, with the advent of news programmes and, eventually, rolling 24/7 coverage.

The internet once again revolutionised. But perhaps the biggest ever transformative vehicle has proved to be that which arrived only this century: social media.

News comes in myriad ways on this medium. Traditional sources – the FTs and BBCs of the world – now publish their content in digital as well as physical form. More dramatically, The Independent brought its printing era to an end last year, opting to operate solely online.

As well as this, we have the proliferation of agenda-driven news sites. Sprouting up amidst the age of social media, websites with specific intentions and target audiences utilise social media’s pervasive reach. Some of these are politically-motivated, such as Breitbart and ProPublica, others more demographic-targeted, like Joe.co.uk or LADbible.

Finally, social media has bolstered the individual voice as a powerful presence in news-gathering. If one particularly likes a certain media figure, one can now follow them on Twitter. By holding up a mirror to this kaleidoscope of their knowledge and thoughts, we transform them into didactic gurus, able to shape how we think like never before.

This explosion in forms and numbers of news sources has underlined the growing question mark over the longevity of traditional news sources. As habits change and people increasingly favour instantaneous and laconic digital snippets, should we be preparing for the demise of the comprehensive, physical printed article, and even those organisations which produce it?

Espousers of this belief might point to the declining figures of newspaper sales. ABC figures[1] (responsible for monitoring media statistics in the UK) at the start of this year revealed continued stagnation/deterioration in the sales of almost all newspapers. The Daily Mail was down 6.7%, The Guardian 3%, The Telegraph 3.4%. In direct contrast, online readership sky-rocketed, averaging a 16% year-on-year increase for the major national outlets.

This suggests that people are not ceasing to rely on traditional names for news-gathering in favour of, say, Twitter feeds or Facebook click-bait; they are just accessing them in a different way.

Nonetheless, there are those who still worry that the influence held by established media homes is waning. A fascinating article in the FT [2] investigated the current potency of The Sun in one of its reader heartlands earlier this year. It unearthed a YouGov study which showed that 52% of the popular tabloid’s readers did not vote in the 2017 general election, despite its daily lambasting of Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn. If anything, the vitriol may have emboldened people to mutiny and sympathise with the victim of its rather distasteful campaign. The same YouGov study claimed that 45% of the British electorate gather its political news from newspapers. This number is not low in and of itself, but one expects that it would have been far higher in the days before online competitors amassed.

Perhaps most worrying of all for those invested in the fortunes of traditional media is that there is an unquestionable generational element to this changing nature. Remaining within the ambit of this year’s British election, surveyed 18-24 year olds revealed a dramatic shift in news-gathering allegiance. 50% said social media had influenced them in the build-up to voting day. Just 15% said the same for newspapers.

 

Data source: Media Insight Project

This would corroborate a survey[3] of Millennials carried out by Coupofy, which found that nearly 70% get their news primarily from Facebook. Again, it is important to stress that this does not resemble an abandonment of traditional sources by the young, as they may well be following the FT or The Telegraph on social media. It does, however, add fuel to the flame of suggestion that the death knell of printed papers may be sounding louder and louder.

The occasionally-heralded demise of traditional media outlets still remains a contentious and possibly excessive proposition. Where the right wing media failed to bury Corbyn, it undoubtedly played a vital role in galvanising the leave vote in the Brexit referendum. The liberal media might have failed to bring down Trump, but its constant haranguing continues to frustrate the now-president. It sets a tone of general negativity in the nation, manifested in his chronically low approval ratings.

People, especially the young, are now accessing news via social media, a habitual change in direction destined only to continue. But the crucial understanding is that this change in how does not necessitate an alteration in what is being read.

Often-heard criticisms include the ‘echo-chamber’ effect of a Twitter feed filled purely with mutual beliefs and attitudes, or perhaps the dumbing-down of content brought about by demand for the pithy – the whims of a dwindling attention span. But these are generalisations based on speculation and cynicism.

What is the difference between somebody who only follows social media accounts which share his/her attitudes, and the person who buys the same politically-slanted newspaper every day? Incarceration in the like-minded prevails in both cases. Meanwhile, some might find it hard (or not have the time) to read a long article from start to finish, but many, many others still do. Digital news usage is on the dramatic rise, after all. And those who cannot concentrate enough now would probably not miraculously start doing so if social media were to suddenly dissipate.

Society is not receiving its news like generations before. This reality is accentuated more by Millennials, and will eventually come to be embedded definitively by them. But it is not dictated by them alone. Evolution in news-gathering has occurred at other junctures since 1665, yet the industry has not vanished. On the contrary, it has grown exponentially. Established names have fallen out of existence. But many weather the tides of change. Few can vouch for this adaptable endurance more than the London Gazette itself, now in its 352nd year of existence.

Marcus Solarz Hendriks

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2017/jan/19/popular-newspapers-suffer-greater-circulation-falls-than-qualities

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/a56320a8-7926-11e7-90c0-90a9d1bc9691?desktop=true

[3] http://www.adweek.com/digital/social-mobile-driving-millennial-news-consumption-infographic/