If you live in London and are in the habit of keeping abreast of the news, the city does everything it can to prevent you from doing it in the most traditional and, frankly, the best way possible – reading a standard national daily. And this is not just London, but increasingly across the U.K. and the West. But nowhere is it as disheartening and reprehensible as in the U.K., given our long-standing culture of newspaper reading and being home to some of the most respected broadsheets in the world. In recent years, residents of this country have been systematically deprived of free access to newspapers, not least by institutions that are meant to be guardians of intellectual fulfilment and nourishment of people – our universities and libraries.
When I took up membership at a public library in the borough of Bermondsey a couple of years ago, the staff told me they do not hold print copies of newspapers because they had halted deliveries during Covid in order to minimise the spread of the virus. It was a plausible explanation, I suppose, back when we were not fully sure that we had well and truly seen off the pandemic. But two years later, as fear of Covid has receded into history, the library in question has still not restored deliveries of newspapers. And it isn’t the only one not to do so. Many other public libraries in other boroughs give me the same reason for the absence of newspapers to this day.
Two years since the end of Covid, libraries across the city refuse to provide their patrons with access to the most basic offering of any library and cite Covid as the reason. At this stage, you know it is not a reason anymore. It is a pretext. A convenient excuse to explain away their reluctance to buy the newspapers for their users. Because when you ask them why they have still not resumed their subscription, they have no answer. “You can read them online,” they say. But what if I do not want to read them online? A library should give me a choice to read the newspaper digitally or in print.
And many people who support the trend of the decline of print newspapers tend to speak of getting the news online as though it were the same thing. That it is patently not is well-established, as is the superiority of print reading. As Mary Wakefield wrote in the Spectator recently: “You pick up a paper in pursuit of news and in the hope of understanding it… No one picks up their iPhone to grapple with complex geopolitical truths. We prod at them when we’re bored, like lab rats looking for treats.” Even reading the so-called e-versions of the standard dailies, I would venture, is not an acceptable substitute. Because picking up a smartphone or a laptop means that you are exposed to a myriad potential distractions on the internet that want your attention and won’t allow you a moment of in-depth concentration.
It is also argued that most people of this generation do not like to read newspapers in print and prefer to get their news online or on intellectually edifying sites like Instagram. And therefore, the libraries are merely adapting to the new status quo. It may well be true that younger people favour the internet to keep up to date, but that is no justification to do away with print newspapers completely. Firstly, the harmful implications of consulting social media for news is well-documented and public institutions have a moral duty to provide access to trustworthy sources of news. Just because people nowadays resort to social media excessively doesn’t mean that libraries and universities can wash their hands of their duty to provide access to more reliable platforms.
Secondly, while many young people these days do indeed get their news online, there is still a minority of us who favour print. And it behoves public institutions to cater to all of its audience, not just those who demand less of its resources. Finally, many of these centres are happy to see off print not because that is what people seem to want, but instead because the trend panders to their own lethargy. It is easier and cheaper for the libraries not to subscribe to print editions. Claiming that people are not into print anymore is a ready-made excuse for cancelling the subscriptions indefinitely. It is important to recognise, therefore, that such institutions are not innocuous actors merely adapting to changed circumstances, but are agents actively promoting the extinction of print for their own convenience.
And such agents include not just public libraries, but also universities, offices and other places that traditionally provided daily newspapers. In some cases, the quest to get one’s hands on a broadsheet is beset by incredible levels of absurdity. When I was a student at the London School of Economics (LSE) not too long ago, the library did not contain a print edition of the Financial Times newspaper. Why not? “Not since Covid.” Surprise surprise. And it remains that way. A PhD student studying economics in a famous university in Scotland laments that her library did not contain a copy of the FT, nor does her department, and was asked to get approval from her supervisor, which was denied. Because there was no justification why she wanted a print edition when the digital one was available. It is the same university that spent a pretty penny on erecting a highly modern academic building fitted with gender-neutral toilets.
In the eyes of many university administrations it seems as though students who prefer print are getting ideas beyond their station. How dare they desire what they are not entitled to! Another friend who works in the finance industry was told by his company that it has cancelled its subscription to a print business paper because its new essential supplies provider does not do newspapers. There is a queue for a digital subscription, however, would he like to join it?
This phenomenon is rather unique to the West. I found an institutional bias in favour of digital in other European countries including Germany and Ireland. But in places such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it would be laughable for a library or an office not to hold copies of all the standard newspapers. I recall the feeding frenzy I found myself in with some fellow students as we scrambled to get hold of the Hindu in the college library when I attended university in Delhi. It is ironic given Britain’s role in introducing modern-day journalism in these countries.
The erosion of print remains a pressing concern for the media industry, driving many to shift online and expand their digital footprint. While they must do it to attract an audience and stay relevant in a digital-savvy world, institutions have a responsibility to protect and promote print not just as a reliable source of information, but as a medium that does not impair the human ability to concentrate. To devote deep attention to something is a sublime human activity that the internet can cripple. Print newspapers encourage that activity and it must not be sacrificed at the altar of digital and social media. Institutions like libraries and universities whose task it is to promote intellectual enlightenment have failed us all in this regard and have connived to hasten the death of print.
Aditya is a writer and has a Master’s in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE). Find him on on X.