Dec 12

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.

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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).





Dec 11

The meaning of the abrupt departure of the New York Times CEO

Recessions, or rumours of their return, concentrate minds. Late last week, the New York Times announced the departure of its CEO, Janet Robinson, in terms which made clear that this wasn’t her initiative and that it had something to do with the paper’s struggles to find a successful digital publishing strategy.

I suspect that Ms Robinson’s removal is a symbol of a debate not confined to the boardroom of the New York Times or, come to that, to the United States. A long period of economic uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic is starving newspapers of both readers and advertising income. In Britain print circulation declines are accelerating and given that two of the largest year-on-year falls are for the Guardian and Financial Times, I don’t think this can be attributed to the phone-hacking scandal.

This pushes all newspapers and their publishers closer to one of the biggest decisions in their history, a momentous choice which is coming sooner than many expected. How much longer can they stay in print? When do they switch to digital?

When two British editors were asked last year how much longer they expected to be printing their papers, both said that the companies had bought their last printing presses. Since both had invested in new presses in the past few years, that gave the Sunday Times and the Guardian maximum time horizons of between twenty and thirty years as paper products. I doubt that many titles now think they have that long.

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Nov 10

Shirky, paywalls and newsletters

Intriguing suggestion here by Clay Shirky, analysing the opaque numbers issued for the websites of The Times and Sunday Times: that a paywall for a general interest paper can only work on the “newsletter” model of privately circulated content to a small, fee-paying readership. In other words, charging can only succeed by altering the nature of the publication.

Shirky makes the powerful point (and he’s made it before) that the web decisively disrupts the continuity of well-known titles and brands in news.

One of the problems for the printed press is the fall in the value that people think newspapers have. Perhaps the most powerful driver of that decline is the simple ability now given to the reader to compare. Before the web, only working journalists sat down each day to compare the relative performance of a competitive set of news outlets; it was part of the job. Now anyone can do this on the web, using any basis of comparison they choose. The lack of relative orginality and the commodity nature of much news, particularly in an era when editorial resources have been thinned out, is far more obvious to all.

It’s beginning to dawn on newspapers that they can only respond to this by thinking the unthinkable. Even if a newspaper decides to make separate pieces of its output special “micro-brands” and to ask readers to pay, this involves restructuring to concentrate on these new outlets. And it may not be easy to locate or form a paying community which appreciates what a paper thinks is a key strength (“comment”, say). Specialist and niche websites will already be in those spaces and they may not be easy to dislodge.

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Nov 10

The Times paywall numbers: what counts for what

By bundling together different varieties of consumers of the digital versions of The Times and the Sunday Times which might usefully have been kept separate, the two papers managed to squeeze a headline figure – 105,000 – just into six figures.

That number is for “customer sales” for the past four months. As a method of   reporting this doesn’t even begin to be convincing. Any business journalist on either title confronted with this sort of chicanery from another company in the online market would gleefully rip into the executives releasing numbers in such opaque form. But it’s not very likely that News International will be getting that treatment in the pages of either paper.

The best analysis I’ve seen so far has been from Rob Andrews of PaidContent and Ian Burrell of The Independent. The most detailed working of the figures is here. Burrell defiantly continues the quixotic old-fashioned practice of actually ringing up experts and recording what they say.

Six quick observations to help interpret the interpretations: Continue reading →


Sep 10

Rupert Murdoch and the future shape of content bundles

John Gapper of the Financial Times speculates that what lies behind Rupert Murdoch’s bid for the rest of the shares he does not own in Sky TV is the enticing possibility of bundling subscriptions to broadcast and written content. Gapper’s example from the US is the bundled sale of access to Cablevision and Newsday.

That would seem to be one advantage of the bid to won Sky outright, if it succeeds. But you can take the speculation further and in a direction which has profound implications for the established newspaper titles in the News Corp empire – or in any other multi-channel news media business. (Routine declaration: I worked for The Times, owned by News Corp, until 2009).

In what we might call the second phase of digital news publishing – characterised by tablets, tailored apps and more determined efforts to control more of the value chain and customer data – there’s more than one way to change the bundles. One innovation would indeed be to sell a TV+print package. Another would be to recut and re-present material assembled together which isn’t normally seen in the bundle because it belongs in separate titles or brands.

One of the freedoms of the internet which young users in particular like is surfing across a lot of sources. Could a company like News Corp offer to subscribers a football package which allows the subscribing user access to all football material across all its properties…say coverage from The Sun, the Sunday Times and Sky, both broadcast and website?

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Jul 10

TLS review: the paywall gets personal

A review of mine appears today in the Times Literary Supplement and the paywall issue gets personal.

In the wake of the relaunch of the websites for The Times and Sunday Times, the TLS site is apparently still under construction. I can’t see a link to my review and the closest is the contents page online. My sadness is only partly to do with the new paywall. The TLS never put all its contents onto the old TimesOnline site and since this is a less prominent “back half” review, it might not have made it into an online version even under the old arrangements.

No doubt the new TLS site will shake out some of these snags. Maybe I’ll even adjust to not being able to send or post links to what I write. But I rather doubt it. I write relatively infrequently and I’m having a problem adjusting. What’s it like for those writing every day?

Anyway the review is about books by foreign and war correspondents and it’s on p23 of the TLS, which is of course full of good stuff and great value for money.


Jul 10

Paying for The Times: my very own obstacle course

An American friend of mine, standing once at the entrance to a restaurant which seemed to have no interest in seating him, said: “This is the only thing I don’t like about this country. Here I am, trying to give people my money. Do they want it? No.”

I found myself in a similar position today trying to pay an online subscription to The Times and Sunday Times. I’m fond of The Times (disclosure: I worked there for many years) and while I have doubts about the particular paywall scheme they’ve begun, experiments in charging are good. If this kind of thing isn’t tried, we won’t know. And we don’t know if other business models will keep good journalism going.

A few weeks ago, I was infuriated by the new site’s habit of dropping down a registration window and making you enter your details again. And again. And again. Eventually I left the site alone for a bit and the snag was fixed – but apparently not before this problem had irritated many others, including people working on the paper.

Yesterday, having missed his live appearances in London this week, I wanted to see the Q&A with author Clay Shirky. It wouldn’t load for ages and I had to go and do something else. OK I thought, maybe the site was getting heavy traffic yesterday as people used it for free on the last day before payment. I thought I’d better have a look at the Shirky interview because I’m reviewing his book. For The Times.

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