The Independent goes digital… will SCAN be next?

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Images courtesy of independent.co.uk. Image edited by Ian Meeks

The news that the Independent was to move solely online was met with widespread dismay, especially within journalistic circles. Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Independent, attempted to pass off these changes as a “historic transition” in an attempt to avoid “the continued decline of print”.

In many areas, it’s hard to disagree with Lebedev. There can be no doubting that print journalism is in the middle of a steep decline that shows little sign of plateauing. Between March 2014 and March 2015, the total number of national newspapers sold in the UK fell from an average of 7.6m a day to just over 7m – a decline of 7.6%.

The times of people going to the shops to get milk, bread and a paper are long gone in the 21st century digital age. News is not something that people wait for their morning newspaper to read about – it is relentlessly forced down our throats by online news sources. The choice for consumers is fairly clear: why pay £1 for news today which they read about for free yesterday?

This desire to have things for free creates another issue – how do news outlets make any money once they move online? The Guardian invested large sums of money into their (free) online presence, but continue to lose money. The Sun embraced a paywall system, charging users a fee per month to access content, but then dropped it due to dwindling users.

The industry is still confused about the best way to make money in this area. Introducing a paywall potentially alienates consumers who will simply access similar content for free elsewhere. Advertising, meanwhile, can be intrusive on webpages, blocked by readers and influence output to the extent where adverts masquerade as news – clickbait headlines such as “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS” are repeated ad nauseam to try and draw readers to websites for that golden nectar: advertising revenue.

Concerns like these are primarily why people are so concerned about the Independent going solely online. For nearly thirty years, it has stood alone and provided a dissenting voice in many of the fundamental national and international debates. Will this voice be subsumed by the call for additional clicks? Will current readers of the Independent move online with the paper? Only time will tell.

Aside from everything else, this radical call from the Independent may well fire the starting gun on a number of other poorly-performing newspapers moving to a solely online presence. Print journalism is potentially witnessing, without wishing to be melodramatic, the beginning of the end.

And this is where SCAN comes in. Over the past months, concerns have been raised that the money spent by LUSU on our publication would be better spent elsewhere – it is easy, on the surface, to see why.

Gone are the days where students immediately turn to their newspaper to find out what’s going on – Yik Yak provides a far more radical service in that regard than we could ever provide. It is also no secret that the website performs better than our print copy. The budget for the year is roughly £11,000 – the cost of setting up the new website was £50. It must seem commercially illogical for SCAN to continue publication in print, or at least in the current manner.

But SCAN is lucky in many regards. Despite the £11,000 budget dwarfing that of many other student societies, that money is offset by advertising revenue. LUSU can either sell these pages off or utilise the advertising space themselves. For example, selling two pages of advertising space in one issue last term brought in £1,500. SCAN is obliged to offer eight pages of advertising per issue and run thirteen issues per year…the money adds up. Advertisers will never offer that much cash for space on the website; at least not in the current climate.

Student newspapers do not charge people to read their content – it’s easier to pick up a SCAN for free than it is to pay for one of the dwindling nationals. Student newspapers are also fortunate in the sense that they exist in an artificial market. The lack of competition on campus, coupled with the fact that people want to see their names in print, means that people will, if the quality remains, continue to read the paper. Until advertising revenue begins to dry up, there is no reason whatsoever that student papers will stop publishing.

But that is not to say that this day is far off in the distance for student print media. The Independent closing will inevitably lead to others considering doing the same. Once other nationals follow suit, will there still be a place for print media on campuses across the country? Will students’ unions safeguard funding for student expression in print, despite it not being in the financial best interests of the union if the advertisers move on? The answer is probably not.

If student newspapers do move to a solely online presence, the influence would not be the same. There is still something deeply powerful about a newspaper, written by students, holding people to account; it is a physical presence on campus. This would be lost in a solely online world.

There is also the danger that well-meaning students’ unions will attempt to keep student newspapers going through an increased number of cheaper adverts per print. But this would create a catalogue of adverts, read by no-one, interspersed with an occasional article. It is a catch-22 situation.

Currently, SCAN and other student newspapers operate in a bubble; one that will not burst in the immediate future. The fear is that the bubble may burst sooner than expected.