15
Oct 12

At last: a journalist with a sense of history and of its power to renew

People who run university journalism schools get used to being asked why they are offering courses to wannabe journalists who won’t be able to find jobs because so many of those jobs are disappearing in the digital disruption. I get asked this twice a week.

Nicholas Lemann steps down as head of the Columbia Journalism School in New York next year and an interviewer from the Daily Beast asked him just this question. His splendidly iconoclastic and counter-intuitive reply makes an excellent riposte to the unreflective pessimism which dominates much pipesucking and public moaning about journalism.

Lemann doesn’t dispute the facts: that jobs have been lost on papers and that more will go (see this blog on Britain here and here). He’s not optimistic about the 25 largest big-city dailies in America. But Lemann takes aim at two fallacies which pop up in most discussions about the future of journalism: the idea that these problems didn’t exist in a golden age sometime in the recent past and the assumption that the future of well-known daily newspapers is the same as the future of journalism.

“People tend to feel, whatever the pressing problem of the moment, that humans before me didn’t have to deal with it,” as he puts it.

Continue reading →

Share

01
Oct 12

It’s tough out there in print

Within two minutes this morning and without need of any comment, these two tweets recording cuts made by major papers….

Gordon MacMillan@GordonMacMillan

Times closes monthly science & environment mag Eureka http://bit.ly/Pmm7sx  << Lost its largest advertisers /@BrandRepublic

Share

25
Sep 12

Funding journalism: not before a sharp, painful squeeze

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, sinking in the polls and suffering the media persecution which goes with that, thinks that newspapers won’t be around when his children are grown up. He implies that because printed papers might vanish, journalists of the future won’t pick apart the performance of politicians. Or at least they’ll be nicer when doing it.

Less naive, but nevertheless mistaken is the idea floated by David Leigh of The Guardian (declaration: he’s also a colleague at City University) that the financial problems of newspapers could be solved by a £2 a month levy taken from internet service providers (ISPs). Journalism has always been cross-subsidised, so it’s the right question. But the wrong answer.

Taken together these fragments of the debate about what’s happening to journalism show that a stark idea, long discussed by those who study this stuff, has now gone mainstream. Change in newspapers will be transformative and not just adaptive. And it’s coming very soon.

Take a quick look at the recent print circulation figures of the five serious national dailies (FT, Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent). Taking the figures from June 2011 to June 2012 (i.e. excluding Olympic effects) year-on-year falls range between 8.52% (Telegraph) and 44.62% (Independent). Take the Independent out of the equation on the assumption that the figure is distorted by some statistical manoevre and the bracket is from 8.52% to 17.75% (Guardian). Now imagine the effect of those numbers on print advertisers (still probably at least two thirds of the income of these papers) and speculate about the tone and type of discussions that are going on inside the offices.

Continue reading →

Share

03
Sep 12

The Leveson Inquiry pre-positioning: editors a bit confused

The printing of naked photos of Prince Harry by The Sun exposed nothing very interesting about the prince but it did dislodge some very muddled thinking about the future of newspapers.

The short-term future for newspaper editors is dominated by the Leveson Inquiry, due to report in the autumn. The Inquiry’s chairman has been sending provisional summaries of his views to editors and they don’t like what they read, claiming that it hints at statute-backed press regulation. The government sounds wary. The opposition Labour Party is sitting on the fence on that issue, preparing to jump off on whatever side will cause the government most trouble, while keeping as much attention as they can muster on the issue of media plurality and ownership. These are all pre-publication manoeuvres. Nobody yet knows what Leveson thinks and positions will be amended or even abandoned when his views become clear.

The Prince Harry pictures gave editors a chance to rehearse their defences, which came in two varieties. The first is a broad press freedom argument which asks for licence to disclose anything which they deem interesting and which is within the law (and maybe a few things which aren’t). As a defence in court – prosecutions of News of the World journalists for phone-hacking and related offences are churning through the system in parallel to the Leveson Inquiry – this is unlikely to work (see this from the HuffPo by one of those arrested). We might christen this the “spacious elbow room” argument; popular papers need space to do what they do and to survive. A tincture of anti-establishment language is usually thrown in. Hence the ex-editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie:

“I’m unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I’d like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers”.

Continue reading →

Share

24
Jul 12

Murdoch, MailOnline and other accelerating disruptions

A significant marker in the rapid evolution of news media has just been passed – and it wasn’t the resignation of Rupert Murdoch from the boards of his UK newspaper companies or the charging of News of the World journalists.

The Daily Mail’s online edition, MailOnline, is reported to have just made its first operating profit. The site, driven by carefully-judged global celebrity coverage and a little sprinkling of soft porn, overtook the New York times some months ago to log the world’s largest user numbers for a news site. The NYT, for once sniffy for understandable reasons, said that they didn’t consider it competition.

So we have these developments to interpret:

Continue reading →

Share

21
May 12

The economic history of newspapers according to the Sage of Omaha

For many years, Slate has been one of the best sites for commentary in America. One of the stupidest things that intelligent team ever did was to sack their media columnist Jack Shafer, who now writes at Reuters.

His trenchant style hasn’t yet quite recovered from the transfer, but he continues stubbornly to refuse to think with the herd. For this alone he is required reading.

As evidence, here is Shafer’s column on Warren Buffet (left), the uber-guru of counter-intuitive investors everywhere, and newspapers. Buffet has owned newspapers on and off over the years and his commentary on their profitability or otherwise happens to write the twentieth-century history of printed media pretty well. And not just in America either. Once upon a time, newspapers could price their advertising space pretty much as they wished because their position in their markets was strong, bolstered by lack of competition and brand loyalty. Now that “franchise” has weakened. A cold-eyed view? Yes, but that is no bad way occasionally to look at newspapers which have more often been seen through rose-tinted spectacles of sentiment.

Journalists like to think that they are above grubby matters of business. But if you don’t understand what went wrong in the business model for printed news media, how are you going to figure out what will work in the future?

Share

14
May 12

Newspapers: even if you don’t have the solution, stick with the main issue

Teachers (and I’m one) have a habit, which understandably annoys many people who wrestle with practical problems, of posing questions to which they don’t have an answer. When I’m in this mood with an audience or class, I tend to put a questions about bundles.

Newspapers, many news websites, magazines, radio and television programmes are bundles of stuff. While this may be justified as making content more attractive and useful (variety, serendipitous discovery of the unexpected), bundles are really made by economic imperatives. A mixture of news and features collects together enough attractions to persuade someone to buy a newspaper; the newspaper sells the attention thus secured to advertisers who buy space alongside the content. In theory, the bundle’s total income exceeds its outgoings in a web of cross-subsidy. Magazines and commercial broadcast channels operate variants on this model.

But what happens, my irritating question goes, if an irresistible force blows the bundle apart? What happens if the readers or audience sees no logic in consuming journalism packaged in bundles? Social media, search engines and the internet don’t naturally see things in bundles. Bundles are by definition ambiguous compromises. Web search abhors ambiguity.

For a year or two, this uncomfortable thought has been pushed aside by more immediate, and slightly more palatable, issues. Can newspaper paywalls be made to work? (Has the New York Times discovered the secret sauce/holy grail/formula for eternal life?) Is the iPad the answer to struggling publishers’ prayers? But underlying fundamentals have a way of coming back to the surface.

Continue reading →

Share

20
Apr 12

Local newspapers: sentiment, logic and the experiments of the future

Johnston Press’s new boss Ashley Highfield set off a row which will erupt again and again in the coming years when he announced that the company is turning some its daily local papers into weeklies. Local papers are so long-standing and (mostly) loved that we find clear thinking very hard.

There is no general, worldwide “crisis” of journalism or even of newspapers. Newspapers are declining in North America and Europe but not in South America; they’re doing fine in Asia (numbers here). There are countries where journalists are badly treated and physically under threat, but that’s not new. The convulsions of the phone-hacking scandal are so far confined to Britain.

There is a crisis affecting journalism in the US and Europe, but it is worth being clear-eyed about exactly what it is. It is the ruin of the business model for printed daily papers in which news is cross-subsidised by advertising income which is leveraged on circulation numbers. That way of doing things is in trouble. That decline in circulation and income is a deep, long trend.

The lines on the graphs have been drifting down for years. As one of the analysts at the Enders consultancy pointed out (£) in the wake of Johnston Press cutbacks, the circulations of local papers have been going down for 40 years: this is nothing surprising or new. A graph of the total aggregate circulations of all British national papers across the whole of the 20th century shows that the combined sales peak for all of those papers was in the 1940s (see slide 5 here). The internet may have made the headaches of newspaper publishers much worse, but the rot started well before the web was ever thought of. Finding a new way of financing news matters even more than phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

One of the most basic foundation ideas of the newspaper was its separation from the state. Free news media choose to live out in the cold of open economies. When the society, economy or technology changes, the media must change. Digital communications alters all three and turns a lot upside down. Information doesn’t require capital to move; news no longer goes one-to-many but one-to-one; printing isn’t required. And so on. The history of news reveals endless experimentation amid chaos and fast-changing conditions. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that news media in Europe and America enjoyed a stable, institutionalised era which gave journalists the impression that secure employment in large organisations was the norm. Historically, it isn’t.

There was a piece last weekend in the Sunday Times magazine (£) which captured the paradox of much gloomy pessimism about newspapers sitting side by side with experimentation. The paper’s writer Tim Rayment assembled many grim statistics recording the falls in circulation, jobs and reach. To illustrate the problems he had gone back to Cleethorpes, the north-eastern town in which he had been a cub reporter. The local paper was having a tough time, to be sure. But Cleethorpes has a new fledgling weekly paper challenging the incumbent and a local news blogger, who annoys and provokes the powers that be in the town. So the risk of decline was there – but so were the seeds of future change. Something is lost in the transition chaos. But new energy is released as well.

Update 23.4.12: (lengthy) defence of the value of local papers via a survey of what the major British owners are up to by the knowledgeable Liz Gerard and interview with me about pressures on local papers on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House yesterday (item starts 32 minutes in).

 

 

 

Share