Peter Preston: Newspapers have a place in year of the 'version'

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Printed media still offers the opportunity to read on a whim, writes Peter Preston.

News is available in more formats than ever - but the printed word has its advantages. Photo / Sarah Ivey
News is available in more formats than ever - but the printed word has its advantages. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Last year it was paywalls, the free-versus-subscription argument that gripped newspapers worried about survival. But see how the moving finger flicks on. Welcome to the 2012 version of this debate, otherwise known by the unlovely name of "versioning".

The idea of paywalls, you'll recall, is that newspapers set some sort of tariff for reading their sites.

The idea of versioning is pragmatic and simple. It says: here's a pile of news. Let's put it out in variegated forms for PCs, tablets, mobiles, Facebook, Twitter and print. Same basic material: different delivery methods. Then we can charge, or not, according to circumstance.

And, let's be clear, this approach has much to commend it. John Paton's US news group, The Journal Register Company, has many admirers as it seeks to generate digital revenue first. Many forward thinkers are following the same path. But look, too, at a logical hiatus that begins to wrinkle brows.

Enter Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University.

It's in no sense odd to find American academe wrangling over journalism.

Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review and Clay Shirky of New York University have recently been hammering away at each other, seeking to determine whether investigative journalism can only be conducted by highly resourced news machines or by a more individual, digital-first approach.

But what's sociology got to contribute here?

Plenty, Klinenberg says, outlining the fundamental bargain that underpins newspaper life. You, the reader, want crosswords and cartoons, recipes and TV programme guides.

You want all the stuff that journalists serve up with a sigh (because, well, it's not exactly journalism, is it?).

And, in return, as part of the deal, journalism is allowed to have a civic purpose - to report and analyse the workings and frailties of democracy - beyond the seasonal recipes.

That bargain, sealed in print, means you can't have one without the other. Put your cash on the newsagent's counter and you get some things you desire and other things, from Cardiff or Chad, that you didn't know had happened until you turned to page five.

Of course, like any other neat thesis, there are readers and editors who don't quite fit. But the nature of print - flipping from column to column, noticing stories that intrigue you, naturally expanding your spheres of interest - isn't "versioning" at all - it's more eclectic.

An iPad or Kindle version works within narrower bounds. A Facebook version is even more selective, tailored to your most immediate demands.

And the logical version at the end of this line is utterly simple: no deals, no bargains - just what you want, electronically provided on the basis of past predilection.

At which point, big questions about the future of news begin. Digital intrinsically insists on choice. When John Paton bets his house on digital-first, what's the basic template he's selecting from?

If it's print, then the choices are comprehensible. But take print out of the equation and where are your bearings? Because then every batch of alternatives is bound to be a segment of an unfocused whole.

The easy thing is to serve up a dish of the day you know will sell, because it sold just this way yesterday and the day before. A reader's little pot pie. The difficult thing is to offer readers things they didn't know and can't be interested in until they stop and sample: that essential news bargain.

Walls are walls and apps are apps, and 2012 will see many more of them.

But open minds? That's one pressing version of an open question.

- Observer

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