In a digital age, radical media must adapt

We must innovate and experiment, combining print and digital in new ways.

Josiah Mortimer is an activist, writer and politics student at the University of York

I’ve never really fitted the student stereotype. After a night out I have a habit of, not buying pizza or calling long-lost friends, but subscribing to left-wing magazines.

In this I’m probably alone, sadly.

Far from being natural hoarders of socialist publications, most young people nowadays probably come to progressive media – if they do at all – through a parent’s copy of the Guardian – or most likely, through the internet.

Outside of the ultra-hardcore politicos I know, it’s hard to think of any young people who buy a newspaper regularly.

Yet millions of people do still buy them – the leftish Daily Mirror still shifts over a million copies daily, the Sun nearly 2.3 million, and the Daily Mail almost 1.8m, with the Star, Express, Times and Telegraph each hovering above the half-million mark (and much higher for their Sunday counterparts). The youthful, leftish sister-paper of the Independent, the i, continues to grow with nearly 300,000 daily readers. Print ain’t dead yet.

That’s just the traditional rags. Political magazines are holding up surprisingly well in this supposed age of mass migration to digital. Private Eye continues to mock the Establishment with over 220,000 sales a fortnight, with The Economist and The Week close behind. Their websites, too, are thriving, with the Guardian edging towards five million readers a day – meaning its combined online and print readership makes it the largest quality daily. It’s is a mutual relationship – paper and web.

These publications’ established following and brand names give them a firm standing to lead the way in online content. That’s partly why the New Statesman is doing so well, hitting 1.84 million visitors in August and nearly four million page views. There’s no reason why an adequately crowd-funded socialist magazine couldn’t secure the triple boost the NS has – a wider readership, rising ad revenue and more interest in the print version.

But the real issue is the role of print. Why do we still ‘do’ it?

Well, there’s aesthetics. People like holding a magazine or paper. I hate staring at screens. As someone who spends my life on the internet, reading print is a welcome break. Print is mobile. You can buy it anywhere, take it anywhere and don’t have to worry about your battery running out. You can cut an article out, stick the front cover on your wall, pen in the crossword answers and hear the rustling of turning pages. You can pull out a poster or photo, stash away a memorable article, rip out half a sports page as a bookmark.

I like hearing the thud of the New Internationalist landing on the doorstep, tearing off the packaging and sitting down with a brew in the garden without worrying about LCD glare.

My own party paper, Green World, would collapse were it not sent to every member in print. It is the core of the ‘rank and file’s relationship with the party – for some their only link with the national situation, a hold-able manifestation of their membership. Greens don’t do membership cards – the mag is our party card.

And print can be beautiful and crafted in a way that a website can’t – grab a copy of the stunningly-designed and recently launched Strike! magazine if you don’t believe me. Yep, I like print.

But it’s the physical nature of the physical form that makes it truly useful. Unlike a link, you can leave it on a train, give it to a stranger or friend, and hand it out for free at demos. It acts as a hands-on platform for organising.

The Morning Star, in steadfastly remaining in print, sits on news-shelves alongside the capitalist rags, offering a visible alternative. Even if they don’t buy it, every day millions across the country see the Morning Star’s main headline. It might be the only radical few lines people read that week – potentially sowing the seeds of thought that, eventually, lead someone to get active.

Red Pepper and the Morning Star have also acted as mouthpieces for the anti-austerity campaign and the People’s Assembly in recent months in ways no website could alone, as has Peace News for the environmentalist and pacifist movements.

That’s because print publications offer a cohesive whole. In a world where the end of ideology is frequently proclaimed, print media offers a means to present a rare coherent viewpoint. A unified whole, a worldview. Clicking onto forty different web articles in one sitting won’t give you that.

Between the paving stones that are the fading print media giants, new radical pioneers are emerging through the cracks.

Strike! magazine is blossoming through offering ground-breaking alternative journalism in an astounding visual format – and an excellent social media-friendly website. Transition Free Press, after only a few issues, is getting out to national audiences in the way a standalone website couldn’t, after being crowd-funded online through BuzzBank. The Ecologist, after shutting down its print edition, soon returned to paper after it found web-only couldn’t cut it (and now lives on in Resurgence & Ecologist).

In the US, a plethora of left-wing magazines have leapt out of the vacuum into a vibrant print culture with Jacobin magazine, the New Inquiry and others using their sites as sharing and promotional tools.

The future of print, then, lies in dynamic relationship between the two formats. Print, and digital, far from being enemies, are both necessary for the survival of progressive media. And it’s through Facebook and Twitter that you can pull in my paper-averse demographic, and eventually, once they like what they’ve seen, move them into the physical edition.

That’s shown most strongly through the revival of the feminist movement in the UK and the successful membership-driven launch of Feminist Times off the back of it.

Finally radical media platforms are embracing the web, reaching young new audiences while continuing to deliver the experience that only print can offer. Social media is a gateway.

The left is in a rut across Europe, and the old journalistic order is crumbling from the impact of scandals. But, paradoxically, these facts help us. We must innovate and experiment, combining print and digital in new ways. Out of the ashes of the ancien regime a new multi-media culture can rise. What have we got to lose?

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