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Offline vs online: Why it’s coming full circle

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I have this daft idea about online versus offline. I’ve always thought that since we exist in a real, crusty world, with all its sensory delights, that online would never “take over” in the way that some slightly hysterical commentators and entrepreneurs said it would. 

I had faith that bricks and mortar, food and drink, rattle and hum would always keep us grounded in the offline, “real” world, and that Aldous Huxley’s crazed notions of brains suspended in perpetual scientific limbo, sentient in a virtual world, were fantasy. 

So it’s very re-assuring that more and more online transactions are being supplemented by offline, or “real” ones. One example is the online print business Moo.com, whose founder Richard Moross has opened a new shop in the heart of London’s media land, Shoreditch. 

Although it’s housed in a pile of shipping containers (which look as though they might be commandeered any minute for the global trade boom we’re all anticipating) the shop is white-cube cool, very arty and ad-land chic. 

Groping the smooth cards and lovely paper textures is what this small-to-medium-sized business hopes customers will do when they sneak out of their nearby studios and lofts to pass away their lunch hour – and hopefully order lots more. 

But will it sell more than before? Enough to recoup costs? And generate a positive return on all the fixed and variable costs of keeping a 9-to-5 retail unit functioning? Let’s wait and see for a few months. But I like the idea. 

I have another daft idea. It’s this: Newspapers Still Have Their Place. 

No really. Despite the onslaught of internet mags, blogs, wires, newspapers and media streams of all kinds, I still believe that tactile paper and card and disc still carry messages and images and sounds better; and remember what Marshall McLuhan said: the media is the message. 

In other words, hard copy still feels good, while getting neck ache, RSI and eye strain at your tablet or laptop feels bad. 

To those who say that hard-copy ad revenue is being decimated by online, I say look at the figures. For example, although print ad revenue at Johnstone Press is down 16 per cent on last year, online ad revenue is still only 6 per cent. 

Just as small business owner Richard Moross believes in the touchy-feely appeal of his stuff, newspaper owners should believe in newsprint and invest in it, by hiring more and better journalists and getting them to do what we love to do: investigate and report on the stuff “they” don’t want us to know about. 

That would sell more copies, reverse the ad revenue decline and therefore bolster ad rates and revenue. And anyway, it’s not as if people are not reading news; they still do online, and trust the same broadcasters and newspapers. But the free services don’t deliver enough revenue (see above) especially when the news is provided free. 

That’s why I propose a broadband levy which would oblige internet service providers to pay a small percentage of the massive income they get from subscribers, to pay for all the free content they profit from, and that’s mainly news and media.

Finally, some slim glimmers of light in the small business funding crisis. 

After my piece last month lamenting the slow faltering nature of the government’s funding for lending scheme, Royal Bank of Scotland has announced it has £20bn ready to lend to small firms, but can’t find any. 

So come on, SMEs! Come on, sole proprietors! Get those business plans knocked into shape and get down to see the manager (ok, get online as they’ll probably not have a bank manager for you to meet anyway). Cos there’s now apparently money available from our publicly-owned bank. (By the way, will Labour now re-instate Clause 4, since it nationalised banks, railways and other non-functional concerns despite its Blairite Damascene conversion to the privatised market??)

Bruce Whitehead’s column on Real Business explores the latest political developments and their effects on UK businesses.

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