It's far too early to tell yet how the UK newspaper industry is going to emerge once all the inquiries, arrests and soul searching is over, but it's hard to imagine them coming through significantly unscathed. One interesting question to contemplate at this stage is, will the current crisis and future revelations yet to come, lead to a fundamental shift in our support for newspapers, bringing about their extinction quicker than previously predicted?
The spectacular demise of the News of the World, quickly followed by allegations against The Sun and The Sunday Times, initially suggested that the crisis was confined to the culture and practices at News International. Yet suspicions and murmurings that illegal methods of information gathering were not isolated to Rupert Murdoch's UK print interests may soon turn out to be true, with The Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror the latest titles to be dragged into the row by investigators and whistle-blowers.
With the scale of the drama showing no signs of abating, what if a few months down the line we eventually find that British newspapers are so rotten to the core that we no longer feel that there is a future for them? What if one day in the not too distant future we woke up to a world without newspapers, how would we cope? How could we possibly get by without something so deeply engrained in our lives and such a celebrated cornerstone of our democracy?
Of course the likelihood of the situation reaching those cataclysmic depths is pretty far-fetched. Although in terminal decline, it will be some time yet before newspapers go the way of the dinosaur, a projected 16 years at the current rate of circulation decline, barring any other attempts at self-destruction. But the interesting question which this saga casts a fresh light on, is do we really need newspapers at all anymore and if they all disappeared tomorrow, would we truly miss them? Or would we simply pick up our iPads, iPhones, Blackberrys and laptops and go about consuming news and information as rabidly as we have become accustomed to, confining newspapers to the same corners of our memory as we did typewriters and dial-up internet?
What then do newspapers give us in this day and age that we would really miss, if it's no longer quality, accuracy and honest account? Imagine for a second that tomorrow every major national and international news website went behind a paywall. Would the world go crawling back to print like an adulterer begging for forgiveness? Unlikely. While it might slow the decline of newspapers to some very small extent, if print and online were placed on an equal price footing, the adoption of new technologies and changing patterns of information consumption still point to a digital future.
It's not implausible to suggest that a nostalgic desire to keep newspapers alive as long as possible in order to protect our perceived rich media culture, has up to now been a significant factor behind our inability to switch off the life support machine and allow them to slip away. But given recent events, do we really feel the same sense of loyalty anymore? What society protects criminality, immorality and corruption for the sake of sentimentality?
Of course it's simplistic to suggest that by dismantling the newspaper industry you put an end to the wrongdoing that has led to current crisis. These problems are more deeply engrained in our media culture and are going to have to be exorcised in a whole different manner. But one of the most interesting and subtle effects this scandal will have had when the dust starts to settle, is to seriously undermine one of the few remaining motivating factors in our desire to keep newspapers alive, our nostalgic affection for them.
If the media industry started again from scratch in 2011 with the wonders of modern technology at its fingertips, how many publishers and consumers would choose print as the most desirable form of information conveyance and consumption? The old fashioned newspaper wouldn't get a look in. Newspapers aren't still around because of need, speed or economic factors, emotional attachment and habit are far bigger factors in that equation. And while it may still be several generations yet before the habit of picking up a crisp newspaper eventually passes, our emotional and sentimental bonds with them, accelerated by recent events, may well die much sooner.