Pub talk hides the risk of rapid newspaper decline

Last night I found myself with a schooner of beer in hand pontificating about the future of media.

So no change there then. The only difference was, for once I had an audience.  

The event was the Media In The Pub debate, an event less formal than many dedicated to the future of journalism and media.

I was one of four panellists challenged to describe how we would run a fictitious company called ANALOG (Australian National And Local Output Group) should we suddenly find ourselves in charge.

The imaginary company was not unlike Fairfax, with a mixture of metro and community papers, radio interests, plus some magazine and online stuff too.

The event was as off the record as one can be when people are live tweeting it, so it’s not fair to go into too much detail, particularly not about Telstra’s GM of news and sport David McGrath’s presentation. Not that it was controversial, but he was probably the most constrained by what he could say publicly because of working for a big company.

Bronwen Clune took the most positive approach, advocating a new way of making papers relevant with personalised printing.

And James Tuckerman of Australian Anthill got the audience’s interest with proposal/ warning/ suggestion that brands in specialist niches might end up funding their own journalism. It’s a topic he’s also riffed on on The Mumbo Report:

I must confess that I took a somewhat pessimistic approach, on what a short-termist manager, incentivised only by cost-savings, profits and share price over three years might do.

My first focus was on the papers.

The eaisest approach would be to radically reduce journalistic headcount on community titles – turning them effectively into press release publishing machines. No more covering of court or council, no more visits to see the cops, doign everything on the phone, probably with a centralised subbing system.

Clearly in the long term that reduces readership which impacts on the effectiveness of the advertising.

But it takes a lot longer for that to haoppen than for profits to perk up. For the ruthless manager, that’s good news on the bonus front for a few years – certainly long enough to get in and out of the company.

It was a view partly formed by working for (the now much-diminished) Trinity Mirror group in the UK more than a decade ago.

But the scary thing is that it could happen here far more than it already is.

As brands, there is no more complex product than a newspaper. The investment (or reduction in investment) in the product is not obvious to the reader or advertiser immediately. So for them to thrive in the long term, they need management for the long term, not the next quarter’s numbers.

That requires somebody at the helm who believes in, and even loves newspapers.

And that’s the scary thing. If the wrong person ends up at the helm, the downward spiral can begin easily. One short-term, short-sighted bureaucrat could so irrepairable damage. Australian newpsaper lovers may be luckier than they realise right now.

The  there’s radio. At present the legislation, while not perfect, guarantees a certain minimum quality and level of local content (even if there are occasional breaches). But again, with vigorous lobbying by owners a lot more money could be made and a lot less local content created.

So although I was mostly joking, I’ve ended up making myself thoroughly depressed. We are only the wrong person or perhaps a bad bit of legislation away from a much weaker media.

Tim Burrowes

Comments


  1. Renai LeMay
    25 Nov 09
    2:55 pm

  2. Hey Tim,

    that’s one way to look at it.

    The other way, and the way I prefer to look at it (and I wish I was at Media in the Pub last night) is that we are witnessing a transformation in media which will ultimately benefit both consumers of content and those who produce it — that’s assuming you can even really say there is much of a difference a lot of the time.

    It might not benefit them financially … but then journalists and producers have never been paid much.

    For those writers and content producers who are truly dedicated to what they do, new models will remove much of the bureaucratic overhead between them, their readers and their art forms. Witness the way that thousands of readers are now directly engaging with journalists like Latika Bourke in the press gallery.

    Sure, there won’t be as much money flowing around, but then, in my view, there was a bit of fat in the media sector that new technology will cut out. We’ll emerge leaner, but stronger.

    For readers … where to start? As much diversity as they can handle, and it’s going to be cheaper, but more engaging and real. Mass broadcasting is going to make way for much more individualised consumption of media. Many are already getting this, again through things like Twitter, RSS feeds and more.

    There will be pain. But there will also be glory. And of course — looking back at the sweep of industry change in many different sectors — it’s clear that they always go hand in hand.

    Cheers,

    Renai LeMay
    News Editor
    ZDNet.com.au

  3. Fridley
    25 Nov 09
    3:05 pm

  4. Great effort last night Tim. Think you really did a good job setting up the discussion for the evening.

    Was a little disappointing that there were not any fantastic new ideas on offer but not surprising. I unfortunately agree with your pessimistic outlook, and think that your “role” imaged well the (short term-3yr) motivations of most company management.

    While I neither see the sale of t-shirts or coffee cups nor unicorns and their rainbows (with their printing presses) as an answer that will support more than a small minority of journalists, the discussion was not all negative.

    The focus on journalists perfecting and focusing more on their own image, their individual skills and incorporating that into “some” payment model (yet to be devised), is I think a good step forward for those willing and able to change, and very bad news for those that are not…

  5. Glen
    25 Nov 09
    3:12 pm

  6. I am optimistic that the next evolutionary changes to news media will create a journalistic renaissance in that only actual news will get coverage and pseudo-events will be dismissed or they will shift to niche market, almost-subcultural enthusiast media. This is where the sustainable growth will occur and the winners will be able to balance user and pro created content/participation so the brand/masthead retains it’s authoritative valorising status within the culture/community.

    I am surprised more was not made of sustainable niche market media at mitp. General news is mostly dead.

  7. Renai LeMay
    25 Nov 09
    3:18 pm

  8. @ Glen

    Mate I more or less agree with what you’re saying!

    But this last sentence is a doozy:

    “This is where the sustainable growth will occur and the winners will be able to balance user and pro created content/participation so the brand/masthead retains it’s authoritative valorising status within the culture/community.”

    Do you work as some form of social media expert???

  9. Toby
    25 Nov 09
    3:51 pm

  10. Why does every one assume content is free now? It’s not. Access to the internet costs money – for some of us – cable TV costs money, we pay taxes to fund the likes of the ABC and SBS and other public broadcasters, too. Radio is probably the best value from the consumers’ perspective, yet ironically that is the media that is struggling most.

    It annoys me, too, that it is the consumer that is effectively being forced to pay for a lack of imagination from content providers. People like Rupert Murdoch have been allowed to thrive in the past by purchasing as many media outlets as the law allows, and succeed on a lack of competition. What the digital age has supplied is more competition than he can deal with. He doesn’t like it – it makes him uncomfortable, and that’s not a bad thing.

    The fact that we now have access to millions of opinions and stories when previously we could only read a handful is nothing to get depressed about. Paying for it would be, but the winners in this competition will be those that are inventive with the ways they monetise their content, without putting the cost for it back on the consumer.

  11. Glen
    25 Nov 09
    4:05 pm

  12. @ Renai

    Social media expert? Well, if someone wants to convince me to leave my current job…

    I did my phd on enthusiasm in car culture. My research examined 30 years of enthusiast magazines and their relation to the scene, including the last 5-6 years of online culture (until 2004). I have been thinking about the relation between print and online publishing since then.

    The magazine industry is so far behind where they should be it is crazy. I work as a writer at a magazine publisher now (I left academia) and trying to get them to understand some of this stuff is doing my head in. It is happening but slowly. They do not understand the difference between the value of a brand in print and the value of a brand online. Where do they think all the readers have gone that used to read magazines? Frustrating!

  13. Matthew
    25 Nov 09
    4:17 pm

  14. I am a normal boring consumer. Not in the media industry. But I have money to spend and a family of five.

    I suggest all forms of media must stay relevant and quality. I have not looked at a local paper, nor purchased any newspaper, for years.

    With the recent Vile and Tacky Ho dramas on radio, I have not listened to any radio station for months. I am now reacquainted with my CD collection and my teenage daughters have introduced me to some of their CD collection too!

    Adverts on TV are not viewed, as soon as they appear, another channel is selected.

    We are enjoying the new digital offerings from 7 and 9. ABC2 often has some goodies too. I don’t spend a cent on pay TV.

    This comment may be viewed as off topic or representative of the normal consumer newspapers are trying to keep or rediscover. Am I a lost cause? Maybe not. I have ideas of how they can regain my spending, but I won’t tell them for free :-)

  15. Duncan Riley
    25 Nov 09
    4:35 pm

  16. “The eaisest approach would be to radically reduce journalistic headcount on community titles – turning them effectively into press release publishing machines. ”

    Seriously, have you ever worked with community papers before? You’re suggesting turning them into something they already are.

    My proudest days as a former Government staffer were when the local rags didn’t even bother editing a word in the press releases I’d sent, and that wasn’t as rare as it might otherwise suggest. The rest of the time it was simply a matter of how much of the releases they used. I’d note that some of these papers included small regionals that recently were awarded very high accolades in the Pacific newspaper publisher awards. No names, but they know who they are :-)

  17. Caspian
    25 Nov 09
    5:13 pm

  18. Tim, I share your concern…

    The economics of media are being amplified by social media – which makes audience response instantly measurable.

    In one way, this is great – it means media will be more responsive to the audience. That’s a good thing. But what about the issues nobody cares about? The issues that may nevertheless matter – or that defy the mass of public opinion.

    It’s easier to whip up an angry mob than it is to convince twelve angry men to do the right thing.

    Passion for journalism is what makes great media drive awareness and positive change, and that only pays off in the long term.

  19. Matt Granfield
    25 Nov 09
    5:18 pm

  20. D’oh, wished I’d been there, I got all fired up after the Liberal coverage today and blogged about wWhy Murdoch is being stupid, and why we’ll never pay for online news… (http://www.dpdialogue.com.au/z.....ng-stupid/)

  21. Gavin
    26 Nov 09
    11:18 am

  22. Tim
    Nice Capture. I too was inspired to write about the event, but I didn’t end up writing about the ‘new models’ which you guys spoke about, despite my best efforts. I pretty much realised that I didn’t have a new model (who was I kidding?).
    Instead I thought a bit about the existing model , and aside from IMHO a lengthy hump we are going through at present, I didn’t see what was wrong with it. As long as you find the delivery vehicles which continue to deliver the eyeballs for the Advertisers and get a reasonable price for the space you rent to those Advertisers, I see no reason why it couldn’t continue to work.
    You can see my post here http://wp.me/p1XYS-q
    Regards
    Gavin

  23. Stilgherrian
    26 Nov 09
    8:29 pm

  24. While it was great to hear the different plans for turning around ANALOG-which-is-not-really-Fairfax, the scenario did constrain things a bit.

    I suspect the truly new, revolutionary, radical, innovative media entities which create and sustain future journalism won’t come from renovating the existing media empires but through something new and different. After all, if you want to build an airliner you don’t start by trying to refit a steamship.