Buried on page 11 of this week’s Spectator was eloquent evidence of a slow but inexorable shift with large consequences: the transfer of power and influence from printed newspapers to digital publishing.
Oh that, you may say. Old news. Isn’t that already blindingly obvious? Doesn’t this blog go on about just that all the time?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean that everyone sees it. Big, slow changes are hard to trace and measure when you’re living in the middle of them. And newspapers still have a central role, clout and readers. But have a look at Charles Moore’s short note about the importance of Conservative Home and its owner, the Tory peer Michael Ashcroft. Moore describes Ashcroft as on his way to being “the Beaverbrook of the internet age.”
I pick this example of because it is hard to imagine a magazine less likely to fall for hype based on a techno-fad than the Spectator. The same applies to Moore, who as a political commentator is interested in power and its use. What he is observing here is a redistribution of political influence caused by the technological revolution of the last fifteen years. Old powers will wane; new ones will use the opportunities to rise. Digital is transformative and not adaptive change.
The internet’s first effect on news publishing was proliferation and fragmentation, a massive acceleration of the multiplication of channels which had begun with the growth of radio, cable and satellite television. Millions of blogs, living or dying on peer-to-peer networks. The second effect reverses the first: peoples’ choices, regulation and mergers and acquisitions consolidate the new market into larger and lesser players. Ashcroft’s rise as a player in the digital publishing market is one signal of this second phase.
Incidentally, if you want a clear, witty and accessible introduction to this history and the dilemmas it poses, read “From Gutenberg To Zuckerberg: What You Really Need To Know About the Internet” by John Naughton. I can’t recommend it too highly.