Print: dead or alive?, published in The Independent

Published in The Independent

How worried should the print media be about the onslaught of the digital age? Gloomy? Excited? Bullish?

A trio of heavyweight print execs, assembled to address the Judge Business School Media & Business conference in Cambridge, gave starkly different synopses of the outlook.

Most alarmist and gloomy was Andrew Gowers, former editor in chief of the Financial Times, who compared print to vinyl records. "Ink on dead trees," he called it, with the entire industry facing a "wrenching change", unlike any previous upheaval. "The digital revolution takes in all income streams," he said, dismissing new formats and DVD giveaways as "sticking plasters" on the dying patient.

In the US households apparently spend 30 per cent of their media time online, whereas advertisers are spending only 8 per cent of their budgets here. Dollars are going to migrate, along with eyeballs, he predicts. Classified ads are just one element: property and job ads are going "helter-skelter" online, says Gowers. This means that hundreds of millions of pounds, traditionally spent on print, is "going down the gurgler." Or down the Googler, perhaps.

Google, of course, presents an altogether more frightening threat than any mere alternative ad sales site, as it can divorce ad searches from any kind of journalistic content, making the print 'bundle' of editorial in an advertising context, redundant.

Subsiding into a bearded grump, the glowering Gowers ended with the reflection that online journalism doesn't even seem to pay very well.

Turning to the Guardian's chief executive Carolyn McCall, the Judge School's remarkably perky moderator Noreena Hertz (author of Silent Takeover, among other works) invited her to 'hedge' the position.

McCall began with a discreet commercial for the Guardian's online presence, citing its many million users etc., but then confided that she scares the wits out of her ad sales teams with what she calls the 'alligator jaws' of declining classified sales and circulation threats from the multitude of competing offerings. "There is such a large institutional cost around print that, if you let it happen, even those making good profits will go into double digit loss soon," she foresees. Organisations like the NHS, once among the Guardian's biggest advertisers, have become competition, through starting their own job ad sites. Not to mention free editorial providers like the BBC.

McCall's response is to look at other commercial opportunities, such as conferences and exhibitions, not simply protecting print, but using good journalism to build a multimedia brand. She believes that in 10 years' time, the Guardian will still be delivering quality journalism, but through audiovisual media, the internet "and any other media".

Thankfully omitting the word 'leverage', McCall clearly sees the Guardian as a brand to launch a thousand spin-offs (the highly profitable Autotrader being just one example). "It's worrying but very exciting," said the unflappable McCall, her long dark hair and olive complexion a picture of reassurance in this whirlwind of change. She was even able to ponder the fact that even the internet's 'traditional' models such as Yahoo and Google, are already mutating into new shapes in response to the hectic pace of innovation and morphing customer demand.

Last of the three onto the stage, either through age seniority or because he had the most upbeat assessment of the situation, came Independent News & Media's chief executive Ivan Fallon. With his thick white hair and gentle Irish lilt, Fallon played the elder statesman, remembering how he had forecast the death of the tobacco industry several decades ago, and how the doom-mongers had predicted that radio, then colour TV, would be the death of newspapers. "Each time, papers have changed and adapted," he said.

Reeling out a string of mind-bogglingly large figures, Fallon argued that the industry worldwide is in robust health. India, China, Australia, South Africa... each of these markets are booming for the print industry, at least as far as his boss Tony O'Reilly is concerned. An investment of $25 million in a 25 per cent stake in an Indian newspaper last summer is already worth $125 million, he said, with ad revenues jumping by 25 per cent a year.

Far from sitting around contemplating their navels, Fallon argued that print executives have studied the new models with great care and have acted cautiously but wisely. Much as he admires "Carolyn's wonderful site" at the Guardian, he point out that it, along with the majority of online versions of print publications "is still not monetised". And while this is "the most challenging time for the last 200 years" in the print business, margins in general are high enough (often 30 per cent or more) to be squeezed in the medium term, while in the longer term, "we can beat 'em and join 'em," said Fallon, by creating new sites or adopting new technologies.

Certainly the financial markets seem not to share the more pessimistic forecasts, still putting high premiums on print publishing businesses, presumably figuring that whatever shifts in technology, distribution and content come along, the incumbents are best able to adapt and exploit new opportunities. As for print itself, why would Murdoch be investing a rumoured #600 million in new presses if the world's biggest media tycoon thought it was dying industry?

For the 50 or so media types, business leaders and academics listening to these views, in this 'agora' as the Greek director of the Judge Business School Christos Pitelis puts it, there was a general sense of things being left unsaid. Barely a soul was under 40, and you felt that the sons and daughters of these captains of industry could very soon have disabused them of any complacent notions. "Something like Apple's TouchPad could change everything," said arch blogger Bill Thompson afterwards. The patient's life still hangs in the balance.