Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 January 2007

Well, the organ made it to three-score-years-and-ten. Tribune’s 70th birthday came and went the week before last with just a single mention in these pages noting the anniversary.

Not that this is the last you’ll hear of it: the editor and the staff deliberately played down the actual 70th because they’re planning a really big party later in the year after the seasonal affective disorder is out the way. It’s a sensible decision, and I have every confidence they’ll put together a real ball — unlike the real balls-up we managed for the 50th 20 years ago, when the highlight of the partying was one of the most tedious meetings I have ever witnessed, in a freezing Conway Hall.

But landmark birthdays are also times to reflect on what happens next — and here it’s hard to be too optimistic. Tribune certainly deserves not only to survive but to thrive long into the future. But it is going to have to cope with a very hostile climate.

I’m not talking politics here: with Tony Blair giving way to Gordon Brown this year and Labour casting around for ways to renew its programme and electoral appeal after a decade in power, there is a great opportunity for Tribune to play a big part in setting the political agenda. The problem is rather that the economics of small-circulation left-wing print periodical publishing are becoming ever more precarious.

The big distributors and wholesalers have increasingly decided in recent years that they don’t want the bother of handling minnows that make them little or no money — which has had the effect of squeezing Tribune’s newstrade sales and forcing it into ever-greater reliance on subscriptions. But that’s old stuff: a far bigger challenge is posed by the internet — which is steadily undermining the habit of paying for news and opinion, particularly among young people, and thereby threatening the very existence of an independent left press.

The economics of running a small-circulation print periodical are simple. You have to get enough revenue from newstrade sales, subscriptions, advertising and fundraising to cover the costs of printing, postage, staff, premises, equipment, promotion campaigns and so forth. Because small circulation means low advertising rates (unless you can persuade would-be advertisers that most of your readers are very rich), most income has to come from newstrade sales, subs and fundraising. OK, it’s hard to get it right, and unless you have a rich benefactor — which Tribune has had at various points in its history but doesn’t have now — it can be a real struggle. With a magazine that’s worth reading and a bit of luck, however, you can muddle through.

The big question is how long this will remain the case. Ten years ago, it was easy enough to dismiss as scare-mongers those pundits who said that the internet would soon render the newspaper and the magazine obsolete. Today, as readers turn from dead trees to online, with nearly every newspaper and many magazines losing circulation — some of them at white-knuckle-ride rates — the scenario looks a lot less implausible. All the major players are investing heavily in websites, nervously hoping that increased online advertising revenue at least makes up for lost income from sales and advertising as a result of declining circulation.

The headache facing all but the publishers of specialised commercial and financial news is that people won’t pay for online subscriptions or even for one-off access: they expect the internet to be free. But at least the big boys will get a piece of the cake as advertising migrates online, as it has begun to do. If you’re almost completely reliant on sales and subs for your income flow, you lose your main sources of income as readers abandon print for online.

This isn’t so much of a problem if your print publication is published as a hobby, relying entirely on voluntary labour, with income from subs and sales going to pay the printer’s bill, postage and a few odds and ends: you can simply drop print publication when it becomes unsustainable and publish solely online. The great thing about the internet for anyone who wants to get the message out is that it slashes production, distribution and promotion costs. Indeed, once you’ve got your website designed and hosted, there’s no cost equivalent to the printer’s or postal bills.

But if you’ve got wages to pay — as you must have if you are publishing with any regularity or making any attempt to break news stories, even if, like Tribune, you never or rarely pay for features — the prospect of losing sales and subs, in the absence of substantial ad revenue, is no fun at all.

Which is not to proclaim that the end is nigh — but it is to make it clear that it’s up to you as readers to ensure that Tribune survives, by continuing to subscribe and getting others to do the same. If you want serious left journalism, it cannot be free at the point of use.

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