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Freesheets and free online content are slowly killing off the paid-for daily. Mike Dempsey suspects it’s only a matter of time before newspaper sales atrophy –
though no cyber experience can equal the pleasure of quality weekend supplements

I stopped buying a daily newspaper more than ten years ago, preferring to get my news fix from the radio. But I still maintained a relationship with the printed page via the weekend editions. It accompanies my morning ritual – coffee, an almond croissant and a comfortable chair. But a year ago I made a slight adjustment to this cosy practice. I no longer buy a virgin edition of one of the bumper, multisectional weekend reads. I now collect the previous week’s edition from my ex-mother-in-law, extract the supplements I want – magazine, review, gardening sections and so on – then sit back in quiet bliss, grazing the pages, in a semi-soporific state. You know the feeling. My enjoyment of a week-old edition is not marred, because nothing I read is time-sensitive.

But things are not looking good for the weekend rags. Sales are falling, and with the effect of the credit squeeze it is likely a major national or two will soon disappear. Meanwhile, online readership has been increasing and is far better suited to the speed of news. At the time of writing this piece, I was viewing The New York Times site. My eye was alerted by a newly added story on the death of Harold Pinter. The Web is ever-changing, the printed page lags behind.

The Financial Times has been attacking the weekend brigade with the revamped FT Weekend edition, introduced last year and aiming for a more expansive, two-day read, with its accompanying colour magazine. Sadly, the latter fails to deliver on production values in comparison to The Guardian’s Weekend magazine, which wins hands down on design, quality of photography, illustration, diagrams, paper and print production.

Ironically, the FT is the only national that has increased in sales over the past year – this flush of success can only be because of its business acumen.

In reviewing the quality papers over Christmas, I had hoped that they had stopped trying to ape their Web counterparts. Not a bit of it, there seems to be even more furniture and stuff cluttering the pages. There seems to be a universal fear ofthe simple.

In frustration, I switched to the online editions and was surprised to discover that things have really sharpened up on the quality front over the past year. In particular, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian are both way ahead of The Times, The Independent and the FT in appearance, speed and navigation. All have the addition of video and audio, which, for any movie or theatre buff, is a great bonus, because the reviewers not only show clips but also often have interviews with directors and actors – which is far better than looking at a static image.

For some real chutzpa, we have to look across the pond for a more engaging and creative online experience. The New York Times has a great site, with many innovations presented in a more sophisticated way. And it has really stepped up the •quality of the video content. There is a series called Conversations, where well-known personalities talk about their lives and passions, and it is very beautifully filmed. There is a brilliant cooking spot, The Minimalist, presented by Mark Bittman. Its quick, five-minute recipes, cooked there before your eyes, are aimed squarely at busy New Yorkers. Another hilariously funny feature is The Carpetbagger with David Carr, a husky-voiced guerrilla film reporter who accosts passers-by to seek their view on movies they have seen. The site also has the paper’s magazine T online, which is a feast of loveliness, only marred by ads popping up attempting to seduce you into buying wildly expensive jewellery. But hey, the site is free.

As T is probably the best colour supplement currently on the planet, I’d rather have that in my hand, because the Web can’t do justice to creative director Janet Froelich’s beautiful work. So for the moment, The New York Times in print has the edge on the online editions, particularly for its superlative colour supplement.

Of all the creative environments, newspaper design must be the harshest. So many have undergone numerous redesigns in recent years, only to be constantly tampered with in panic mode in the hope that it might put on a few sales. For every decent design (and there are so few), there are hundreds of duff ones. To have the tenacity to hang in there in order to maintain a newspaper design with integrity and sensitivity is, in my view, heroic and deserves praise. The passing of The Guardian’s old design and format saddened me. But I feel compelled to salute Mark Porter’s sterling work, on the now well-bedded rebirth, for its consistency of design and attention to detail. If only others would follow suit.

As newspaper sites become faster and more sophisticated, online reading will become the norm and perhaps we will even be persuaded to pay for the service too. As for the printed page, I fear that most will eventually become freebies.

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