James Harding departs The Times: follow the money

I’m sorry to see James Harding shoved out of the editor’s chair at The Times. He had made mistakes, but he had also done the paper (for which I worked) a lot of good.

The instant speculation about why he was dumped tells you a good deal about the way journalists think about their business. Some, noting rightly that coverage of News International and phone-hacking had been good after an initial stumble, thought that this robust editing had annoyed News Corporation’s boss Rupert Murdoch. If this was any problem at all, it would have rated as an irritant. Likewise I can’t think that Harding’s failure to buy the CD containing details of MPs’ expenses, when offered it before the Daily Telegraph, would have done for him.

Journalists find it hard to confront the unpalatable truth that the present and the future cannot resemble the past. The reasons are economics and nothing to do with politics or proprietorial power. In a phase of rapid change driven by technology and money, a large part of an editor’s job now is to help to find a business model. The Times hasn’t got one.

In this, The Times is not alone: the Guardian searches for the same thing. When the Sunday Times made profits which covered the losses of The Times, the weak market position of the latter title didn’t matter much to a company making plenty of money from three of its (then) four papers. Around ten years ago, The Sunday Times stopped covering the losses of The Times. These financial agonies lie at the root of all that is happening.

The current “solution” appears to be to cut the costs of both titles by having them share more. The websites, separated at great cost and effort only four years ago, are to be merged again. If this goes beyond sharing a website and looks more like a merged, 7-day paper, two conditions at least need to be met. One editor has to go or be demoted. The government has to be persuaded to alter the undertaking given at the Times of the paper’s purchase that they would be kept separate.

Harding seems to have lost any battles he had been fighting on this front. Given the grief which News International have been happy to give David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt with the release of emails and texts to the Leveson Inquiry, the sympathy of the government can’t be taken for granted.

One last observation on merging papers: it’s more than a matter of logistics, “workflow” and desk geography. Newsrooms have distinct cultures and the staffs of The Times and the Sunday Times have been antagonistic for decades. I have known two periods when the respective editors were barely on speaking terms. If a union is the plan, this may not be a marriage made in heaven.





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1 comment

  1. Excellent. Professor Brock is one of the few mediastias to have noted that newspapers still have not found a way of profiting with the internet.
    It’s difficult for an outsider to see why James Harding is being so widely praised when he made less progress in devising an internet-era business plan than Alan Rusbridger, and even his daring has yet to pay off for The Guardian. The quality of Harding’s Times, incidentally, was high. The website search engine did not always work.
    It happened that just as I was turning to Radio 4’s Media Show yesterday to hear it cover the sacking, a News Int salesman phoned to ask me to resubscribe to the 7-day Times-SundTimes deal. He did not know about Harding’s departure. I told the flunky I was reluctant to resubscribe, given that the papers were likely to merge and that a merged website would be irritating. This is bcs the ST has little worth to my family, apart from its arts, feats and biz sections. The thought of the ST ethos infecting The Times news pages is frightening.