Let’s not be too positive just yet – the nail is still there

It’s more than a year since News Ltd’s marketing boss Joe Talcott used the memorable analogy of a dog whimpering on a nail to describe the structural change the industry needs to go through.  

Until the downturn hit, he argued, many media companies had not had the impetus to make the changes they need. It just didn’t hurt enough.

And that for me, is the one danger of the sunny optimism that appears to be creeping over a few organisations at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong. the signs are all good.

I was delighted at the tone of the Walkley Media Conference earlier this month, where the mood was no longer about the death of journalism, but about the future opportunities.

The same came in News Ltd boss John Hartigan’s excellent speech to the Newspaper Publishers Association’s Future Forum last week. The tone moved away from one we’ve heard from the big publishers  of outraged entitlement, to making the most of technology to give consumers what they want.

So there’s a generally positive air.

It goes more widely than that though. Last week saw Fairfax Media’s return to profit. The company may not have quite used the phrase “through the worst” but it may as well have done so.

And as we report today, Carat is calling a very optimistic outlook for media spend.

Anyone working in recruitment will tell you, we’ve got another candidate shortage.

The danger in all this though is that the industry collectively sinks back onto the nail.

For instance, the one thing Fairfax doesn’t seem to be exhibiting is a sense of urgency. Apparently it’s got plans for a future strategy involvign closer integration of print and online, but it won’t be getting to it for a month or two. The one thing newspaper owners cannot afford to do is to waste time in changing their structures if they still want to be relevant.

The bounceback of the media economy simply buys a little time from the bigger changes that are already in play.

It’s the same in another area of the media too. In online, the growth goldrush is slowing.

When it becomes just another medium, it will be genuinely tested on its claims to be the most measurable. The danger is that in truth, it is still a wild frontier.

It’s embarrassing to be working in an industry where something as frankly dodgy as autorefresh doesn’t just occur, but is common place among the biggest players. And its almost unbelievable that 20 years on, many of Australia’s websites are still not audited.

It’s the kind of thing one might get away while the medium is on a growth curve, but it will suddenly become painful when it is not.

Right now, if the online publishers simultaneously moved, there would be little pain. There would be an awkward month where everybody’s page impressions would be significantly lower than the month before. I’m sure I’d write something snarky about it. And then that would be that. We’d be onto a trusted industry currency.

The same happened when the ABC changed its methodology for tracking newspaper circulation a couple of years ago. The numbers dropped, but the currency became more reliable. There was very little fuss.

For now though, the nail is still there.

Tim Burrowes


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