Nothing has cemented my belief that print is dead – or at least on the way to the morgue – like the proliferation of free magazines and newspapers. These last two weeks I’ve become part of the working masses again. With my return to the economy, I have noticed that the number of free papers I’m accosted with on the way to and from work have multiplied since I was last dragging myself to the office.
I don’t know if this a London curiosity (it’s possible), but taking public transportation to work in this city means that you will no doubt encounter a number of people who will literally try to throw a free newspaper or magazine in your face. I could be given an average of three to four publications for free on any given day.
Time Out goes free
The latest to join this growing stable is Time Out, first launched in London in 1968 by its chairman Tony Elliot. It once used to boast a weekly circulation of 110,000 in London in its heyday in the 1990s; now it is about half that.
A BBC news item says that ‘after extensive research’, the decision had been made to offer the listings magazine for free to London commuters. Global editions, such as the one in New York, will remain paid-for publications.
I’ve had a little time, while madly dashing to work, to observe the vendors who are trying to flog these free print publications to a number of weary commuters being spit out of the mouth of tube stations. Many of them don’t seem eager to take what’s on offer, even though it won’t cost them a penny. Some people will even swerve to avoid the outstretched hands pulling one free copy after another from their arms.
Yesterday morning I observed a pile of free Time Out magazines sitting sadly against a damp and cold traffic light near an intersection. Would they all find warm homes? Possibly. But I don’t know if the Time Out brand has the authority it once did. It has already shrunk its editorial substantially.
Changing attention spans
It does make me wonder about what is happening to print. There is no doubt it’s literally shrinking, losing out to the ever-powerful internet with its acres of ‘free’ cyberspace. I’m all for progress, but I don’t want to see good-quality journalism die out or shrivel to make room for a bunch of free magazines that no one even wants.
Could it be that no one wants them because everyone is reading the content from tablets, iPhones, Android phones and other portable devices? Will people’s 5min attention spans finally spell the end of the analysis, the commentary and the reflection that you still get from some of the broadsheets?
Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to feel a newspaper between my hands, even if it leaves my hands feeling dirty. I think the quality of newspapers in general will decrease if they are given out for free. Where is the competition? Standards will inevitably slip, employees will be laid off, with a fewer number of people doing the work of their ex-colleagues.
I used to work for a newspaper until it closed – 12 colleagues shrunk to three. Now it’s solely online and there’s no doubt in my mind that the quality isn’t quite as good. It’s not because the writing is any worse or because we care any less. It’s simply because we no longer have the resources or money to do what we used to.
And there’s this too: things that are given out for free are not seen as desirable. The more piles of these papers lay by the side of the road or litter empty trains, the more people will just see it as pulp. It’s human nature to be skeptical of anything that doesn’t have intrinsic value.
There are so many of these free newspapers nowadays that people have become quite cynical about them. I know all print is destined for the recycling bin, but piles of papers you can grab off the street – many of them indistinguishable from each other – are not incredibly appealing.
I might be part of the problem. I mostly read stuff I can get for free. Unlike some of my fellow human beings in London, I’ll take anything on offer if I don’t have to pay for it. If someone like me – who believes in the value of print – isn’t buying the newspaper any longer or doesn’t feel compelled to shell out for expensive glossy magazines, things will only get worse for print.
Danger of apathy
I believe that apathy is more dangerous to print than the internet. Just look at what it can do to democracy. If print publications are to galvanize people to fight for their existence, they really need to up their game and carve a niche for themselves that the internet can’t compete with. And this is unlikely to happen while free papers circulate on every corner, giving people the impression that you don’t have to pay for content. The average person won’t care whether that content is good or bad, it simply exists.
My conclusion? Not all the best things in life are free.