Opinion

The Independent And The Slow Death Of Fleet Street

By Steven Downes Last edited 23 months ago

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The Independent And The Slow Death Of Fleet Street

Take a stroll west from Ludgate Circus, and you'll struggle to imagine this mile-long stretch of road was once the base for one of the most influential, and important, industries in this country.

There are still a few clues to how Fleet Street gave the English news business its name.

There’s the elegant statue of a trumpeter, broadcasting the news, over the door to what was once the global headquarters of international news agency, Reuters. Alongside them, until a decade ago, was the Press Association, the national agency which was first to announce the deaths and abdications of kings, the sinking of the Titanic, and the outbreak of war. Now, the agencies’ shared building is a boutique hotel.

Across the road is the “Black Lubyanka”, an unaffectionate nickname for the art deco of the Express building, and nearby a similarly striking office where the Daily Telegraph was once produced, six nights a week, for more than a century. Now, they are full of bankers — or at least the latter was, until Goldman Sachs had to sell up and move on.

Express Building on Fleet Street. Photo by Ian Wylie via the Londonist flickrpool

It is within living memory that London had three evening papers — “Star! News! Stann’d!” was the street corner vendors’ call from about 10.30 on weekday mornings, with new editions arriving on their stand every couple of hours. Now, there’s not a single paid-for evening paper in this, one of the world’s great cities.

Off Fleet Street’s main drag, the side streets such as Shoe Lane and Bouverie Street used to hum to the noise of the presses and reek of ink and hot metal all day long, as The Sun, pre- and post-Murdoch, and the Evening Standard were printed beneath the titles’ editorial offices. Massive reels of newsprint used to block the street, sometimes for hours if the printers or compositors decided to work to rule.

Being a compositor or a printer used to be a decent trade for young, working class Londoners from Hackney, Bermondsey or Walworth. Not any more.

The Daily Telegraph building. Photo by Matt Brown via the Londonist flickrpool

The newspapers are all long gone now, too. Even the pubs which used to quench the thirsty printers and hacks are barely recognisable. The mock Tudorbethan of the Wig and Pen — the pub name a reference to the inns of court that lived cheek by jowl with the news trade from before Dickens’s day — has been re-branded as some instantly forgettable Thai restaurant.

Fleet Street became the seat of the print industry from the 16th century, strategically clustered between the Bank and the government, a short trip down the Strand at Westminster, for newsgathering and, later, distribution.

But our newspapers are in the communication business, and it was communications technology of the late 20th century which eventually saw them discard their traditional home.

Fleet Candid by Terry Moran via the Londonist flickrpool

The demise of “the Street” as the home of the news trade began 30 years ago. Last week, the announcement of a digital-only future for The Independent, one of the titles which had hastened its rivals’ departure from that one tight stretch of road in the City, was the strongest sign yet that using ink and dead trees to distribute news and views has become as arcane as using bird feathers as a writing instrument.

It had all started in 1985 with Eddy Shah, the millionaire publisher of a regional newspaper in Warrington who discovered that with computer technology, you could slash costs by ditching two or three tiers of production staff. You also no longer needed your journalists in expensive city centre offices when a bit of cabling and electronics could keep them in touch with satellite print works around the country.

Shah’s Today newspaper was born, the first in Britain to be printed in colour, albeit initially in “shaky-vision”, as Private Eye called it: the printing process didn’t work as well as was hoped. Today had its editorial offices on Vauxhall Bridge Road, but contracted its printing to plants in Watford, Warrington and anywhere else that lorries could readily get onto the motorway.

The railways’ grip on overnight newspaper distribution was about to be broken. The print unions would be next.

Rupert Murdoch waged war at Wapping on the printers and the comps, backed enthusiastically by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and with as much support from the Metropolitan Police as they could muster. The Times and Sunday Times, from their genteel offices on Grays Inn Road, joined The Sun and the News of the Screws behind the razor wire.

And in October 1986, along came The Independent, a newspaper owned by its senior journalists that set itself apart. It used modern print techniques, much-improved use of pictures and was unfettered by the shackles of political deals cut in smoky boardrooms by newspaper barons. “It is. Are you?” the billboard ads challenged potential readers.

The first edition of The Independent newspaper, Tuesday 7 October 1986

Expressions of regret and analysis of the newspaper business followed the announcement that The Independent and the Independent on Sunday are to print their last paper editions next month. (Professor Greenslade's, over at the Guardian's now predominantly online-only media section is a good starting point.) The majority view seems to be that the Indy's switch to digital won't be the last.

Just as 30 years ago The Independent and Today showed established titles the modern way (and free rent offered by Canary Wharf's owners further helped to lure other newspapers away from their prime real estate offices on Fleet Street), so it seems possible that the Indy might be leading the way once more.

Indeed, The Independent taking the plunge into a web-only world might now make it easier for others to follow suit, just as they did when the Indy went from broadsheet to “compact”. The Guardian, which is trying to cut £50m from its losses with yet another demoralising round of job cuts, might be the next.

The Independent and i newspapers. Image by EPA

All that the management of our national and regional newspapers now have to do is to find a way of making online news pay, to enable proper investment in their journalism, something which appears to have eluded them over the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, two generations have been born who would never dream of paying for their daily dose of news. That is why The Independent, which was selling 428,000 copies a day at its peak, today will sell fewer than 30,000 copies, while all its carefully crafted and expensively gathered news reports and features are freely accessible online.

I was asked to give a talk recently about working in sports journalism to a culture festival in Thornton Heath which was attended by two dozen people, none of them over the age of 25. I didn’t want to disabuse them of the romantic notion of a lifelong career as sports reporters, but I did think it was worthwhile to highlight something to them.

“How many of you paid money for a newspaper this morning? Put your hands up.” Not a thing.

“What about this week? Have any of you bought a Sunday paper, a local paper, a magazine?”

One hand went up. Just one. If your daily crust depends on sales of the Daily Bugle, then you’re going to go hungry.

Revealing back-to-back tweets

The decision by The Independent, though, need not be the death knell for printed product.

After all, in the very same High Street Kensington office as the Indy, under the same Lebedev ownership, is a newspaper title which is financially very successful. The Evening Standard works on a model in which they give away their product at every tube station and railway terminus in the capital every weekday of the year. That’s because the Standard's guaranteed circulation to a reasonably targeted London audience allows them to sell huge volumes of advertising at proper rates.

Other print models are available. Private Eye was celebrating record sales figures last week, largely because they restrict their brand of satire, political commentary and investigative journalism to the fortnightly magazine. No, you won’t find their content being given away online.

And that remains the challenge for The Independent and all publishers who aspire to deliver their version of events on to the tablets, phones and watches of the 21st century public.

Last Updated 21 September 2016