In recent weeks there’s been much hand-wringing amongst the media punditry about the escalating decline of newspaper sales. As an ex-local newspaper editor myself and because it parallels a brooding downturn in magazine fortunes (which concern me even more), I therefore feel moved to rattle my own bracelet.
Following a bleak economic analysis by James Robinson in March 22nd’s Observer (‘Presses grind to a halt as print passes its sell-by date’), Polly Toynbee’s fairly alarmist but not entirely baseless piece (‘This is an emergency. Act now, or local news will die’) in March 24th’s Guardian reiterated that same newspaper’s Roy Greenslade who’d pointed out “free news on the web has always been parasitic on the ability of (news)papers to generate print advertising.” Well blow me down.
Some newspapers, most successfully in readership terms probably being the Guardian and Telegraph, have turned gamekeeper and mounted their own extensive websites which essentially replicate much of what’s in their paper editions but with the ‘added value’ of blogs, comments and even complete stories exclusive to the digital version. Trumpeted on virtually every page of their papers, these are supposed to be a bit of a bonus for customers who loyally shell out nigh on a quid a day for the inky version – and at weekends much more. However for the proprietors they are a crude means of driving up traffic on their websites so that they can attract and charge more for their digital advertising. (Having seen its circulation fall by 6% over the past year, my biggest local newspaper, the Newsquest-owned Hereford Times, is now following suit and the dumbing down of both versions is has become depressingly palpable as they increasingly on regurgitated press releases, many of them weasely-worded by opportunistic local politicos).
Ever since I did some serious research on this some three years ago for a major but ultimately aborted magazine launch (“Not enough advertising potential”), I have always viewed this through the eyes of the cynic who sees a naked emperor talking up his new tailor. For just as soon the advertising hoardings were being erected along the digital highway back in the late ‘90s, so too was the cost of filling them steadily pushed down by advertisers as the traffic increased. The net result was that business plans have been regularly torn up as print publishers desperately strove to increase their hit rates whilst having to drop their CPTs (cost per thousand hits, or more likely per 100,000).
Which of course has all too often been done at the expense of the quality of their print journalism, with all the quality ‘papers shedding the experienced journalists that in large part were responsible for attracting readers in the first place. As a consequence I know of a Telegraph and a Guardian reader in my street alone – and it’s a very short street in a tiny Welsh town – who have given up on their daily paper and now buy it only sporadically, sometimes in deference to the Daily Mail whose character they may be uncomfortable with but whose lower price they find comforting.
Replacing the craft and the considered journalism of these writers with fewer, generally less experienced (if photogenic) media studies graduates may still fill the pages, but their output – reduced reportage, shorter, less-nuanced stories, more froth – whilst it may well suit the websites onto which it is streamed, tends to turn off these papers’ core readership and, crucially, does little to address the advertising deficit the websites were supposed to address.
And of course it takes no account of the longterm fortunes of the fourth estate which, as Ms Toynbee rightly points out that whatever their sometime considerable failings, are crucial because “democracy without the scrutiny of good journalism is unthinkable”. Champions of the internet’s immediacy and universal access claim that such scrutiny will simply migrate online, but until publishers can find a model which generates enough income to finance it, that will never happen unless there’s a newspaper newsroom in the background to deliver the goods. And therein lies the rub.
* A fairly obvious reference to A.A. Milne’s over-optimistic if hopelessly naive character in The House at Pooh Corner et al.
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(c) Mark Williams – 2009