SubScribe: Out of print? Google+

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Out of print?

I love newspapers. My shareholders would like me to get rid of them all.
Rupert Murdoch, April 25, 2012

Who will win what could be a fight to the death? The people with newspapers in their very souls, or the investors whose interest in printed paper is restricted to the kind with watermarks and £ or $ signs?
Some publishers are already preparing to throw in the towel. The Guardian chief executive Andrew Miller said in so many words last year that the print edition’s days were numbered, that digital was the only future. This year he went further, embracing the prospect of giving “citizen journalists” a place in his company’s output. “Socialisation of media is at the heart of our future journalistic calling,” he said.
Will his customers stay loyal if they have to invest in a laptop or iPad before they can look at the paper? And will they pay for content - possibly produced by amateurs? A totally unscientific straw poll of one Guardian reader – my neighbour – came up with this response: “My first thought is no, I wouldn’t, because I like to have an actual paper to peruse anywhere I like – I am off to have a bath now with one, for example. However, if it goes digital then I’ll have no choice will I? Re payment, I would expect to pay.  But I rarely read anything on the web because it’s not as pleasant on screen.”
Circulations may be dwindling while web hits increase, but it is an uncomfortable fact for publishers that people like newspapers. Radio was supposed to kill them off. So was television. Then Ceefax and Oracle. Now the internet, the elephant in Leveson’s room.
In his evidence this week, Sky’s Adam Boulton said that the elephant was creating competitive pressures that were threatening the viability of the print media. Politicians, for example, were  no longer dependent on professional journalists to spread their message – they could now reach the entire public at the click of a mouse. So if basic news could be disseminated without the press as an intermediary, newspapers were left in a desperate search to find something different to offer their readers.
Politicians have an axe to grind.  It’s very nice for them to reach the public directly; but as battle-scarred as our profession may be, journalists are needed to question, analyse and call them to account. And in any case, how many people are going to click on what some junior minister has to say or follow her on Twitter? Turnout at elections doesn’t suggest a huge engagement with the political process and the MPs’ expenses scandal hasn’t exactly lifted their standing in people’s eyes.
The City University professor George Brock suggests that newspapers have to rethink the “bundle”mentality; deal with the idea that people may not want the whole package; accept that they can get their news from other sources and may not want to pay for features or commentary that doesn’t interest them.

I can see where he’s coming from, but I think – hope – that he’s wrong.  As an old-school  hack, it pains me to acknowledge that, other than on the really big occasions such as 9/11, news is not the selling point it once was. It is no longer the main course, but the hors d’oeuvres. The meat of a newspaper lies in its comment section. Features are the pudding and sport the cheese.
If people take their news from the TV and internet, where will they get their comment, features and sport? Magazines? There is evidence to support this theory: newspaper circulations are falling; current affairs magazines are prospering.  The Spectator, The Economist, The Week, The Oldie, Private Eye and Prospect are all putting on sales.  
The Spectator sells 63,000 copies a week; The Economist 210,000; The Week 180,000; The Oldie 41,000. Private Eye a record 228,000 a fortnight.  Prospect notches up 32,000 and the New Statesman, which doesn’t submit figures to ABC, about 24,000 a week. That’s a combined circulation of 778,000.
Hang on, though. Even in these dark days, nearly 10 million people in Britain buy a newspaper every day, including Sundays. That is something under half the number in 1950, but hardly a sign of terminal decline. We are in danger of becoming so beguiled by trends that we ignore the hard figures. There is still a solid market for print journalism. The big question is how to keep – and develop – it.

Trust and reliability

The first step is to recognise what a precious commodity we have and celebrate and promote it. All newspapers rely on building a relationship with their readers. As George Brock points out in his “bundles” blog, it’s a question of trust. As readers, we think we know where the paper is coming from. That doesn’t mean everyone writing for it has a Stepford brain; the opinion columns of our newspapers offer a range of opinion that you won’t find in the New Statesman or The Spectator.
And if we are to retain that trust, we must maintain the quality. But how can we do that when every news organisation is frantically cutting costs while trying to cover every base? Under that approach it  is inevitable that quality must suffer.
This was highlighted seven years ago by the Sheffield University lecturer Adrian Bingham. His prescient paper for the History & Policy academic group on the future of the popular press pointed to the “tendency to prize speed and short-term impact over accuracy and reliability”. The main thrust of his work was to consider the behaviour of the press and the influence historically exercised by proprietors. This was in 2005, before the News of the World published the Clive Goodman story about Prince William's knee injury that set the whole phone-hacking ball rolling. Bingham concluded  that "experience suggests that the press is unlikely to engage in a searching self-examination without some external prompting”. Well it certainly has that now.

The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh tweets constantly from the Leveson hearings, and very entertaining he is, too. Then he has to write a straight news story for the web and the newspaper, plus bits of analysis and colour. It’s madness. How long can you keep up that sort of pace?
Reporters have to fulfil so many roles and cover so many stories that they spend their working days on the end of a telephone. They don’t have the time to go out and meet contacts, build stories, follow hunches. Subs are increasingly regarded as surplus to requirements. Across Fleet Street their numbers are being reduced, yet they are expected to push out copy for print, web, mobiles and tablets.  You have reporters bashing out stories and tweeting like billyo and subs scrambling against a dozen deadlines. No one is allowed to specialise in any field in which they have a real aptitude. Everyone must function in every sphere.
The result? A multi-platform modern media for the digital age? No. We’re giving - or rather selling - our readers  half-researched stories and rehashed handouts with literals in headlines, misspellings, bad grammar, wrong pictures and captions that say ‘xxxxx  cccc here please’.
And so people lose faith in papers and stop buying them - and the decline of print journalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Newspapers are so intent on promoting their digital content that they are neglecting their reader-friendly traditional format, a format that has served for three centuries.  The blogger Fleetstreetfox has a huge online readership, but she wanted a newspaper column. Why? To make more money? To gain a wider audience? To have a “proper” platform for her views? All three, she admits. She now has a weekly spot on the Mirror’s website, but still she yearns to appear in the print edition.
Why?  Because newspapers  are special.

It feels good

For a start, they are tactile.  You can’t curl up with a laptop in the same way, tear out a bit to show a friend or, like my neighbour, take it into the bath. Typing in crossword answers or numbers in a Sudoku grid isn't the same as writing them on to a paper version. Readers notice the different qualities of newsprint, the feel of the supplements.
A printed newspaper has a special geography and rhythm – and don’t the readers howl when it changes. It helps the reader along. There is a hierarchy. Yes, of course the splash is the most important story, but as you move inside, the sequence of pages, the positioning of stories on spreads, the sidebars, the factboxes, the pictures, the witty bottom nibs, and, most of all, the typography all indicate what the editors think are the most important, interesting, intriguing aspects of the day's events.
You don’t get that on the web or iPad. Online you’ll find a main story and a series of puffs and links, but little to indicate which the editors regard as the most relevant or important. There is a constant pressure to update the lead, but it’s hard for the reader to find the story that would make page 7 or 17 in the paper. On the iPad, you may see the same stories as in the print edition, but all the headlines are the same size, every news page is alike. The other day The Times carried  a huge file picture of Adele with an armful of Grammies and a small story saying that her 21 album had outsold Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In the paper that would have been a nib, possibly with a picture. But on the iPad it had the same presence as a serious political story. Can that be right?
Newspapers don’t have to die; they have to rethink themselves. Dumbing down was the solution of the 1990s. Today we should be wising up.

Get the mix right

News pages should be more incisive, with more background, analysis and commentary (clearly marked as such) on the main subjects of the day, but also with cross-fertilisation with the web, guiding readers to relevant material published in other media. At the same time, the secondary stories, the quirky and offbeat must be protected. Readers can stomach only so much war, economics and politics; it's the "everyday" stories that don't mean much in themselves but are simply interesting that newspapers do better than any other medium -  the stories that don't make it to television or radio bulletins and probably don't get read on the web or iPhone. Court cases are definitely in this category - think of the old-style Telegraph page 3. 
Features should be original and home-researched, rather than based on whatever book, television programme, film or album is coming out next week. How many interviews with Chris Martin or Daniel Craig does one country need? But originality costs money.

Look after your regulars

Next, we need to accept that the journalists who put a paper together are not representative of the country as a whole. They need to take a wider view. Britain isn’t a nation of yummy mummies, hoodies and grasping immigrants. We have a diverse population, yet our papers don’t reflect it. They are written by thirty and fortysomethings for thirty and fortysomethings and the rest of the world can go hang. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the preview coverage for the latest series of Mad Men, a television programme that attracts an audience of fewer than 50,000.
The received wisdom has always been that young readers are key. The philosophy, rather like that of the banks, has been “catch them young and they’ll be yours for life”. The logic now is that the young can’t be bothered to buy papers, but are digital savvy with their smartphones, Twitter etc, so those are the formats that count. But they still buy celeb mags, don't they?
Are we missing a trick by chasing only the young? We have an ageing population: generations that have spent their lives getting their news, puzzles, football reports and recipes in print. Pensioners will soon account for a third of the population.  Do they want to read the newspaper on a computer or phone? That’s a heck of a lot people to write off.

Quite a lot of Britain isn't London
Then there is Londonitis.  The UK has a population of about 62 million, of whom about 8 million live in Greater London. Yet the serious papers virtually ignore the 54 million in what they dismiss as the regions or the provinces. They lump together Manchester, Birmingham and York as though they were a single entity, treat Devizes and Hertford as though they had the same concerns and interests. Who (apart from the Telegraph) cares about people living in the countryside? This is a whole untapped source of readership, but it will become more and more neglected as editorial cuts bite.
In the 1980s, The Times style was actually to byline reporters who worked outside London with a “from” dateline as though they were in Outer Mongolia : From Craig Seton in Stafford; From Richard Ford in Belfast. Thank goodness that has at least stopped; and how delicious it is that the paper’s most talented investigative reporter, Andrew Norfolk, operates not in the capital but ooop North.

Don't overcharge

Price is another issue.  Royal Mail struggles to convince the public that collecting a letter posted in Hastings at 5.30pm and delivering it in Aberdeen the next morning is exceptional value for 70p. What hope, then, is there of persuading readers to part with £1.20 for a 28-page Monday broadsheet with pictures of Kate Middleton and cute wildlife,  a lot of eurogloom and some football? OK, so maybe they buy. But will they do so tomorrow, and the next day? A tenner a week for a daily paper plus bumper weekend editions is quite a chunk out of a stretched household budget, especially if the business or sport or travel supplements are routinely thrown away unread. It doesn't feel like value (even though, of course, it is). 
The Times price war under Peter Stothard in the 90s laid the myths that AB readers were not price-sensitive and that to reduce the price cheapened the brand. The paper's circulation flourished as it never had before or since. Today The i is doing quite nicely, thank you, at 20p.

Get rid of the ugly ads

We are told that the economics don't work for print. Newsprint is expensive, falling circulations hit advertising, which is already suffering because of the state of the general economy. That's all true, but what is missing is the will to succeed. Newspaper owners see digital as the new nirvana and  print as something that they have to put up with - for now. The pride in print has all but gone. Just look at the hideous adverts of all shapes and sizes. Ads used to be confined to the corners or across the bottom of pages; now they can sit in the middle, diagonally across spreads and even occupy the top half of the page rather than the bottom. Then there are the pages cut in half vertically and the wrap-arounds that hide the real front page. They all make it so much harder for the reader to find the editorial.  No one seems immune: advertisers  have got the papers on the ground like a lion with a wounded  zebra, and they're gorging themselves.

Learn from the Sage of Omaha

There’s no escaping that papers are losing money. The Guardian group is haemorrhaging £40m a year; it has cut 250 jobs and is heading down the digital highway.  Sly Bailey has paid the price for the decline of the Mirror group. The Times has lost money for as long as anyone can remember, but suddenly it is expected to become viable and stand alone. Times and Sunday Times losses have been cut from nearly £90m in 2009 to £45m in 2010 to less than £12m last year.  Why, after all these years, is there this imperative for them to pay their way?
Because of the shareholders.  As Murdoch pointed out in his comment to the Leveson inquiry at the top of this post, News Corp investors, mostly in America, are sick of the nonsense of the newspaper industry and particularly the hacking scandal. They are happy to take the benefits afforded by the TV networks, film studios, blockbusters and satellite and cable, but they are not willing to carry passengers, particularly passengers from another country.  It’s too easy to forget that this giant multinational was built on print. 
These newspaper-hating investors may care to note that none other than Warren Buffett has today signed a deal to buy 63 American papers and he's not a man renowned for backing lost causes. These are, however, local papers and he reiterated his view today that "In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper". (See also Why local newspapers matter.)

Please can we have a press baron?

Cost-cutting is not the answer. Throwing everything into digital is not the answer. News organisations need imagination and investment. They need to build on what they know best rather than to throw away decades of experience. Of course they must embrace the new media, but there is still a place for print and to abandon it will prove a huge mistake.
Look at the past and you will see a legion of giant beasts of the newspaper world: Hearst, Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Northcliffe, Murdoch, Maxwell. Maybe not people you would want as house guests, but men with vision and passion. Maybe, like football, newspapers need to find a new breed rich men looking for a plaything. The old press barons were as much or more interested in power and influence than in profit. That is off limits for now, so unless you have zillions to squander, it’s the bottom line that counts.
So it comes down to the Desmonds and the oligarchs? Not necessarily. Editors could reassess the packages they produce, look to new readerships, and put forward new strategies.
The survival of print journalism lies in the hands of the journalists.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.


  1. "Even in these dark days, nearly 10 million people in Britain buy a newspaper every day, including Sundays."

    But what are the demographics? This is Mori from 2004 (can't find more up-to-date figures without longer search than I have time for, but I doubt they've changed for the better)
    % GB pop over 45 - 48%
    % readers over 45 - Mirror 54%, Times 50%, Express 65%, Mail 61%, Telegraph 69%
    % of all non-buyers 15-45 - 58%

    So out of 10 national newspapers, five were not recruiting enough young readers to replace the ones who were dying; and non-buyers are more likely to be young than old.

    The reason newspaper circulations are falling is less to do with cuts, falling quality and so on, and more because young people are not starting the newspaper buying habit. If print journalism has any long-term hope, THAT is the problem to address.

    1. of course papers must attract young readers and get them into the buying habit, but they are not the be-all and end-all, they are just a part of the market. what i'm saying is that it's a mistake to alienate and ignore the people who want your product in a blind and narrow quest for people who have demonstrated that they don't. if the grown-ups are wooed back, the youngsters should follow. we just have to give them something intelligent and readable and not rehashed tv and celeb nonsense that they can get (better) elsewhere. we seem to have got into a culture of 'if everyone's talking about it, we have to report it'. well we don't. it's not necessary for serious papers to give over a page to the winner of BGT or X Factor or whatever. journalists need to be up to date with modern culture, but it's not necessary to demonstrate that at every turn. papers like the telegraph and times and indie trying to get down with the kids is little short of embarrassing.

  2. Read your blog twice and think you have really nailed it (speaking from a non-journalistic position) Would not want to face a day without "the paper" to read anymore than l want a kindle. lf paper papers die, l would not go online (not the same) and would listen to radio news and watch Parliament tv! MG

  3. Hmmm. I get the New York Times on Kindle .... downloadable anywhere on the planet, in
    an ultraconvenient format and, best of all, an infinitely better read (in my opinion) than anything available here. So, er, no, I don't think paper papers can survive, least of all when we older buggers all pop our clogs!! jk

  4. Aye, and there's the rub -" when we oldies disappear ......." Been going on for centuries l guess, the mediaeval monks probably thought Caxton was some idiot upstart. l think there is enough time left for me to enjoy what l like before it all disappears. MG