The Independent, New Day and BBC 3: Ramblings About Age

The Independent, New Day and BBC 3: Ramblings About Age

It’s easy to see the way we learn about stuff as a kind of generational shibboleth: a trait which marks millennials out from Generation X, or perhaps identifies people like us as distinct from people like our parents. “Young people” watch YouTube and get their news from Twitter, while “old people” watch re-runs of Bergerac on Alibi and get their news from the Hexham Courant (28.4% 65+).

As with some stereotypes, there’s a kernel of truth to be found in there somewhere. And, like all stereotypes, it is of course far more complicated than that.

It’s certainly true that the digital natives in my boy’s class spend quite a lot more time being taught on iPads than I did in Mrs Malarkey’s class in 1986. But that’s not to say that we fogies are wholly disenfranchised in the digital age: we’re reaching a stage now where pretty much everyone has grown up with technology to some degree or another. Someone retiring tomorrow might well have had a computer on their desk for most of their working life. The first email was sent forty five years ago. My mum’s always trying to get me to use What’s App. Whatever that is. If he lived over here, Bill Gates would be eligible for a free bus pass (although perhaps he’d still be more Twitter than Hexham Courant). My point is, in case you’re wondering, that the new normal isn’t all that new anymore; for most of us it’s just normal. And for an increasing proportion of adults, it always was. This sort of thing is, of course, a question of degrees rather than absolutes. There might be a median behaviour for a given age group out there somewhere, but the tail in the data is so long as to make any suggestion of an average pretty much meaningless.

This gradual maturation of the digital is having a profound impact on media’s means of production. Many of the old staples are having to change themselves substantially and quickly, and some aren’t changing quite quickly enough. Institutions that might have expected their audience to age gracefully are being caught out and have found themselves with a decade or two less to play with than they thought- rather than simply fail to pull in younger consumers whose media habits are predictably different, in many cases they’re also losing their older audience to the “new” media channels. All that stuff about leopards’ spots and old dogs’ tricks is clearly so much nonsense.

This has been thrown into sharp relief recently by some big changes in British media topography. On Feb 12th, ESI Media announced that the Independent and Independent on Sunday would disappear from newsagents’ shelves in March and thereafter only be available online. Four days later, BBC 3 ceased broadcasting in the traditional sense and also became a digital-only platform. Whatever the heritage debt, licence fee wrangling or other specific circumstances surrounding both these changes, they are also indicative of a wider trend- the preference for “digital” media over traditional formats is moving through the age ranges faster than people are aging.

Taking the Indie as an example- the readership of The Independent has always been relatively young for a national (former) broadsheet, but in broader terms it’s really not that young- 70% of readers are aged 35+, and it’s these people who are now expected to continue using the title as an online outlet. And they probably will. I’ll be 35+ in a month or so, and on a good day and equipped with the right pair of glasses, I can just about manage to work the internet (and I also already don’t read the Indie, so I’m all set).

At first glance it would seem counterintuitive, then, for the Daily Mirror to announce the launch of a newspaper into this marketplace. Tentatively named New Day, the title will launch nationally on February 29th at a cover price of £0.20 and with a suggested initial print run of 2m copies. Rather than a swift move to capitalise on the disappearance of The Independent, this move seems to many to be designed to compete with the Indie’s stablemate, i, which is in the process of being sold to Trinity Mirror’s major competitor in the regional press marketplace, Johnston Press. According to Trinity, however, the intended audience is slightly more mid-market than i’s audience: the paper is after readers of the Mail or The Express rather than attacking the quality marketplace targeted by I.

So… what to make of this? There’s life in the old dog yet. Or as one of my colleagues succinctly put it, “the death of press… not on your nelly”. With an appropriately frugal business model, a streamlined staff, an absence of heritage debt and a reasonable attitude towards ad pricing, it’s clearly still possible to turn a profit in the print marketplace. But perhaps this move is also about something slightly less tangible- setting up shop at the close of the print age in order to secure the best position possible in the digital marketplace of the future. Even within the fast-moving world of the wibbly wobbly web, the brand of a media platform has huge value. It’s the cachet and the history of The Independent that will allow its online offering to compete with the likes of the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, and eventually it’s the trust that people have in brands like The Guardian, The Times and perhaps even New Day that will be of most value when the presses fall silent.

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