Why I still have faith in newspapers, despite the calamitous fall in sales

News Letter front pages side by side, earliest surviving edition October 3 1738 and the penultimate edition from 2016, Friday December 30
News Letter front pages side by side, earliest surviving edition October 3 1738 and the penultimate edition from 2016, Friday December 30

Look at the front pages of two editions of this newspaper, displayed on this web page above.

One of them is our earliest surviving paper, from October 1738 (13 months after we were founded) and the other is the most recent edition before today (yesterday’s paper – Friday December 30 2016).

At first glance, everything about the title has changed in the intervening centuries: the print is now clearer and better laid out, there are photographs, there is much use of colour and graphics to explain what follows (and what follows is a vastly bigger 48-page paper than the two-sided sheet in 1738).

But on closer examination some of the fundamental aspects of the two newspapers are the same.

At the top there is the date, and the masthead and then beneath it there is larger print – headlines – to break up the text and denote some of the most important stories.

And it is this core similarity that gives me hope that an appetite for news, served in this way, will persist for decades to come.

Thus the joy and importance of newspapers will survive, even though I write this at the end of a year in which papers have suffered further pressures and decline and battering.

To those of you who have paid £1.30 to buy this latest edition of the world’s oldest English language daily paper, you have the gratitude of everyone who makes their living getting out the News Letter.

You are helping to keep alive an extraordinary institution – particularly those of you who buy us regularly.

Tomorrow it is 2017. The Belfast News Letter and General Advertiser was founded in 1737, which means that we are almost 280 years old (September will be the actual birthday).

There are a handful of weekly newspapers that are older, but no other English language daily comes close to us. The Times (of London) has always been something of an upstart – we were almost 50 when it finally got off the ground in 1785 (too late for the American revolution!).

And so we grind on, day after day after day.

Can it continue?

It is no secret that newspapers around the western world are under severe pressure, as circulations plunge.

As anyone who talks to me about the press will know, I can get gloomy about it all. Young people under the age of 35 do not seem to have any interest in the notion of daily news printed on paper.

In theory, therefore, newspaper doomsday is near.

When I turned 10, in December 1981, my uncle bought me a Guinness Book of Answers that has UK newspaper circulations from that year.

All the regional daily newspapers since then have suffered disastrous falls in circulation. I have been analysing the statistics – the average fall is around 80%.

The best selling regional daily then – the London Evening Standard – sold 641,000 35 years ago and is now a free sheet (albeit a high quality one).

The next highest three placings in 1981 give you an idea of the scale of the drops:

Manchester Evening News was selling 331,764 copies a day, and is now 51,794.

The Birmingham Evening Mail was 322,673, now 21,086.

The Liverpool Echo was 239,007, is now 47,862.

Our percentage fall is smaller, but we are in no position to crow – down 69%, from 54,159 to 16,396.

However, the News Letter still has a huge audience for our bumper Saturday paper, including Farming Life, with an average sale of almost 30,000 copies, which means an estimated readership of more than 50,000 people.

Regular readers will know that our cover price has risen, as has that of many newspapers. This is part of the survival strategy for the press.

As an experienced journalist friend of mine put it to me recently, newspapers were under charging for too long:

“People were paying 30p for their paper, and then £2 for their coffee,” he said.

It costs a vast amount of money to produce a newspaper. A realistic cover price is now unavoidable.

Another is technology, that is making it easier for us to produce a paper with small staff (I am writing this straight on to a computer simulation of the printed page).

And then we are complementing the reader experience with tablet editions, competitive prices for our loyal subscribers (20% off cover price) and also a flourishing website.

No media company in the world has yet cracked the business model, but one day we will.

There are still millions of us readers in Britain and Ireland who are attached to print papers.

I am a voracious reader and buyer of newspapers, from the Co Down (Bangor) Spectator to the New York Times.

When I visit a new country that has an English language paper, I try to purchase a copy to read my way into the area.

I spend so much of my life reading so many newspapers and news magazines that I am getting through far fewer books than I once thought I would: I long ago reached that chilling point in life when I began to realise that I might not read all the 100+ unread books that I own, let alone the many more that I keep wanting to buy.

But I never think time spent reading papers is wasted. My knowledge of the world keeps expanding – even when I am reading thousands of words of comment with which I strongly disagree.

And while I read much news and comment online, and love sharing or learning of articles on Twitter and Facebook, there is nothing that compares with the experience of a print newspaper edition – sinking back into a sofa, glugging endless mugs of tea, wading through various papers (preferably with cake or buns to hand).

Look at what newspapers can still do, even small titles such as this one (our political editor Sam McBride and other reporters delving into documents and constantly finding new lines on the RHI scandal and legacy and other matters).

Papers sometimes offer up to 20,000 words of news alone in a single edition – an amount of information that it would take a very long time for a broadcaster to replicate.

Then there are all the other elements to a newspaper – consider the report today about the deaths of two of our long-standing letter writers.

Think of the pages and pages of sport coverage.

There will be casualties in the newspaper world, for sure, but the industry will trundle on, thank goodness.

I think newspapers are already seeing a fall-off in the precipitous circulation falls, as they coalesce behind a core readership that is willing to pay a reasonable cover price.

Getting out papers is fast-paced and tough. Barely a week goes by when I do not want to run out of the office screaming.

Readers of all newspapers will have noticed an increase in the number of errors. I am seeing it now even in national titles that rarely made mistakes in the past. This is an inevitable consequence of the reduced staff and the pressure on budgets.

All sorts of things can go wrong: I find to my alarm that I now at times write their when I mean there or where when I mean were – mortifying errors if they make it on to the page, the sort of mistake I would not have made at age 13.

But these are all part of the price to be paid for keeping the show on the road.

For all the frustrations, I have stuck with papers, both as my career and as a reader.

And I hope all of you, our faithful readers who keep us in existence, will do so in 2017 and beyond.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor