A troubled meeting of the world’s editors

It’s fashionable to consider newspapers to be sickly dinosaurs threatened with extinction by the hurtling asteroid of the digital revolution, but figures released last week show that it’s far too early to start writing print’s obituary. Globally, 1.9 billion newspapers are sold every day. They reach 34% of the world’s population. In contrast, the internet reaches 24%.

That’s an impressive percentage in the relatively short time the web has been part of our lives, but it still has a long way to go to overwhelm print. Besides, we in the affluent west sometimes forget that access to the internet is not universal; for the majority of the world’s population the fundamentals of life are rather more pressing than reaching for a laptop.

This in part explains why India has emerged as the world’s leading newspaper market, with 107m sales a day, just ahead of China’s 106mcorrect. With increased literacy there’s a thirst for the cheap, portable printed word. (The English-language Times of India, circulation 3m, sells at 1.5 rupees; that’s about 2p.)

Of course, these cheery figures don’t hide the fact that there is a crisis in the British market, where advertising revenue and sales have declined sharply. At the World Editors Forum in Hyderabad last week, the battle raged on over whether newspapers were wise or foolish to give away their content free on the web.

Les Hinton, CEO of Dow Jones, was in no doubt. He warned of “geeks bearing gifts” and said: “The most uncomfortable truth is that this industry is the principal architect of its greatest difficulty today. We are all allowing our journalism – billions of dollars worth of it every year – to leak onto the internet. We are surrendering our hard-earned rights to the search engines, and aggregators, and the out-and-out thieves of the digital age. It is time to pause and recognise this: Free costs too much. News is a business, and we should not be ashamed to say so.”

This thinking is totally at odds with those who believe in free access and the democratisation of journalism. The row’s not over yet.

Profitable or not, there is still a need to handle online material ethically. I came to Hyderabad to talk about this extra dimension in the work of readers’ editors and ombudsmen around the world, and how it was supremely important that we uphold values and ethical standards within this fast-moving, fluid medium. Credibility is the traditional media’s greatest asset and shouldn’t be lost in the race to be first.

There is an increasing recognition that news ombudsmen are key to maintaining transparency and accountability, whether in print, online or on the air. And, while no journalist likes government endorsement, it was gratifying to hear, in a speech at the conference’s opening ceremony, state culture minister J Geeta Reddy urge that every media organisation in India should appoint an ombudsman. It looks as though I shall be returning.

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