Chris Baraniuk, who’s writing a history of Cherwell, came to interview me the other day as one of the most ancient ex-editors still extant. And immediately you ask yourself (and him) whether even five years, let alone 50 years, down the road, there’ll be a print Cherwell, at all – or, indeed, any student newspapers left anywhere?
It’s that infernal internet question that journalists with mortgages to pay ask themselves every day. Can blogs do the full Monty job? How many Tweets make a scream of alarm?
At which point, there are three things for a columnist who follows these things to say. One, loudest, clearest, is that nobody knows. Nobody so relatively early in a digital revolution can be sure of what’s right and what’s best left up a gumtree. Mr Rupert Murdoch, able to call on the best technical advisers around, seems to change his mind every six months. No industry writer (me included, looking back over a wasteland of duff predictions) has any claim to infallibility.
Always remember, too, that the means of delivering internet news – via Kindle, Apps, TV screen or whatever – changes and expands almost year by year. We don’t know what the state of that art will be in five or 50 years, therefore we can’t be remotely certain what will supplant what.
But we can – that second thing – be sure that there will be a continuing hunger, in universities as elsewhere, to find out what’s going on, and to try to wield a bit of influence over events. You only need click onto Cherwell.org to see that anxiety to keep in touch made manifest.
A university the size of Oxford always needs a means of talking to itself, of defining its own sense of community: and the student press is crucial there. Local papers only do a bit of the job. Specialist websites are narrow by definition. Cherwell, always has, and hopefully always will, offer some of the information that binds Oxford together.
Point three, though, is the really difficult one, the dead-forests or super broadband thing, the basic dilemma about the future of journalism itself (for readers and those who want a media job). And I think we can be a little more conclusive here.
We used to see newspaper websites as the first markers of total transition. One fine, imminent day, print would be gone and screens would rule our world. Now there’s far more of a mix and match. When the Guardian routed the legions of Carter-Ruck the other day over the gagging of its reporting in Parliament, print began the job, showing readers that something was wrong – and sparking the blogosphere into action so vibrant that the legal wet
blankets retired hurt. When some talking point happens – say, the death of Michael Jackson – the thirst for news comes in all forms, print, online, TV. Audiences don’t make distinctions.
And when you compute audience figures themselves realistically you also get realistic answers. At first sight, the top UK newspaper online at the moment, the Daily Mail, has 28 million unique users and only 2.1 million buying its print version every morning. But that 28 million figure is the total for the whole of a month.
Strip out Americans clicking through and British visitors following a bit of celebrity action from site to site, and the Mail reckons that only 300,000 users a day are UK readers who stick around for 15 minutes or so: less than a twelfth of the number that read the print copy thoroughly on a single day.
Here, perhaps, is the crucial clue to where we are on a long road of tumultuous change – much akin to the contrast between 300,000 viewers watching BBC News 24 at any one time and six or seven million tuning in to the 10 o’Clock News.
It’s not one or the other that matters here. It’s both, doing complementary jobs. It’s not print Cherwell, once a week that can rule the roost, but the paper you can read in the JCR plus the news that rolls across screens.
More jobs, not fewer, in the end. More news, not less. More voices, and horses for courses. And more chapters of history for Chris Baraniuk to add for his second edition.