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


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