Lords advisor: Politicians should not listen to print doomsayers

A special adviser to the House of Lords’ Communications Committee has warned politicians that ‘dire predictions about the imminent demise’of newspapers and magazines are wrong.

Professor Steven Barnett of Westminster University worked for the committee on its recent long-running investigation into media ownership, and he was speaking at a debate in the House of Commons titled: ‘The only future for print media is online”.

Barnett warned that the history of technological change in media was littered with wildly inaccurate predictions about the future.

He said the development of online technology had followed the same pattern as previous technological revolutions in media, which had usually resulted in existing platforms adapting and coexisting with new media.

He quoted 19th-century Post Office chief engineer Sir William Priest, who said that the telephone had only been successful in the United States because it lacked Britain’s ‘superabundance of messengers’and servants.

But far from the popularity of the telephone wiping out Britain’s courier industry, Barnett pointed out that according to one report, in 2004 it was worth £14.4bn.

He said: ‘There’s a lesson here for politicians: Futurologists and apologists for the media revolution have consistently failed to recognise for the past 100 years that every new medium brings with it fantastic new opportunities, and dire predictions about the imminent demise of traditional media.

‘Each time, the pattern is exactly the same – those traditional media adapt and defy expectations by becoming as integral a part of the new media scene as the old.

‘The reason each time is that they serve a need that no other media can serve.’

Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau, introduced the motion, noting the decline of newspapers’ print circulations, and the explosive growth of their online traffic and revenues.

He pointed out that after just 10 years of significant commercial use, the internet overtook national newspapers’ share of the UK advertising market in 2006, and is on course to overtake television next year.

He said: ‘We’re not saying that newspapers are going to die, but we are saying that the only way they will survive is to fully embrace online to reinvigorate their brand and take advantage of all the additional revenue that it can generate.”

‘Any newspaper that does not embrace online and extend its offering on the internet could have a very uncertain future,’he said.

Among those backing the motion from the floor was an executive from Reed Business Information who said: ‘Almost 50 per cent of our revenue now is from online. The money follows where the attention is, and the attention is going online.

‘The online versions of our magazines have far greater audiences than the printed products do. Follow the money and the future is online.”

Also backing the motion was Rob Grimshaw, MD of FT.com, who said that he has not purchased a newspaper in four years.

‘I find out everything I need from my BlackBerry and my internet connection – there’s nothing about the world I can’t find out about.”

The motion was overwhelmingly defeated by attendees to the debate who largely comprised senior figures from the media.

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