What Happens to Newspapers?
With print circulations down and online advertising revenues not matching up to what has been lost in print formats, can the UK's newspapers weather the coming storm? Leading industry figures met at NMK's event on October 28, 2008 to debate the best way forward. Event chaired by Nico MacDonald.
In the interests of economy, this report attempts to distil the event, audience commentary and later conversations. Our apologies to the wronged. Video soon.
Almost every national newspaper is facing lower revenues, and lower print circulations, one way or another, and this means spreading fewer people over traditional activities, and possibly even more so over new ventures. Every week, we read of more lay-offs.
Fewer people are reading their printed publications and while more people are reading online, it's hard to make money out of them
The central problem for newspapers is that news is in danger of becoming commodified. If newspapers are simply URLs for 'content' then they are doomed.
Google News spiders every major news site on a five-minute basis and re-presents their content in a handy, easily-searchable and very usable context. If a newspaper site can do no better, or offers a poorer experience, then there is no reason for people to visit that site at all.
That's not good news for the newspapers - they need the visitors generated by search to keep up their unique-user figures - the basis on which they can sell advertising. But if their content can simply be summed up as a 'bunch of words and pictures' then Google is quite likely to be able to do a better job of presenting it.
How can you get news-seekers to come to your site and not Google? Or Reuters? Or AP?
Commercial publishers are also very anxious about the strength of the BBC in the news field. While the BBC might defend itself by saying that it does not compete for advertisers, panelist Mike Rowley (Director of Digital Publishing Northcliffe Media) argued that this was disingenuous: "readers are advertising - you can substitute the one for the other".
However, all is not doom and gloom, especially for the quality press, James Cooper (Strategy Exec. Guardian News and Media) interjected later in the evening to bring some interesting figures to light:
• Quality newspaper circulation revenues were £644m in 2003 and rose to £829m by 2007, with recent price rises this figure will be higher again in 2008;
• Quality newspaper display advertising rose from £574m in 2003 to £642m in 2007 and is forecast to fall in 2008, along with the overall ad market.
(Source: Advertising Association. Quality press in this instance means the Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent, plus their Sunday equivalents.)
While circulations have fallen, the price of 'quality' newspapers has risen, evidently more than offsetting those losses. The same appears to be true of advertising sales - display (brand) advertising is significantly more expensive than classified advertising; and while the latter may be migrating to the web, either the cost of, or demand for, display advertising in the printed product has increased, it seems.
What do those figures mean? That, for the quality press, there is still very considerable value in printed products, but that they are becoming more boutique.
Another issues is the digital divide around generations. Young people aren't buying newspapers, it's suggested. They're 'digital natives' as the parlance goes. The fear is that they will never care about print, pick up printed first or really care about where they get their news.
Newspapers don't suffer from a lack of clever, ideas people, though, claimed panelist Justin Williams, of the Telegraph Media Group. The problem is that innovation tends to be based on an outdated model, that of the newspaper:
“No matter how fantastic our newsroom looks and our web-first model is, we still look at things through the prism of newspapers.
This ‘prism of newspapers’ is driving publishers to look at e-reading and e-paper technology, which is tied to the idea of print and, if the current fortunes of the print format are considered ... the world has moved so far beyond".
The rest of the panel concurred, and when the topic of e-book reader formats for newspapers came up again as a possible future, panelist Neil McIntosh, head of editorial development at Guardian Unlimited met with unanimous approval for his comment: "they're a bit crap, aren't they?"
The panel played down the role of the Internet in the current cash crises faced by papers. Many commentators suggest that because the Internet can deliver news so much faster than a printed paper, that it has beaten them. "Newspapers have been playing catch-up since the invention of radio," said panelist Tim Gopsill, editor of the NUJ magazine, The Journalist. "They are news magazines - discussion and analysis of the day's affairs. It's a long time since they were newspapers."
The Guardian has recently adopted full RSS feeds, the only quality newspaper at this point to do so, and plans further developments on this plane, thanks to its newly created Guardian Developers' Network, a move to open up the Guardian's vast library of content to external web applications, akin to the BBC's BackStage department.
Local newspaper giant Northcliffe is currently working on geotagging its content, Rowley revealed. This will soon be automatic and will allow far more efficient publication of both content and advertising. Rowley agreed with an audience comment that print ad revenues are falling because papers can’t track well enough who’s buying them, saying “the industry is going to need to get a lot better at tracking.”
Among the bad ideas about the future of newspapers lies personalisation. It turns out that the vast majority of people simply don't want it: "When people are faced with a choice of editor-selected items and a big list of stuff, they'll go for the editorialised content 99% of the time," said McIntosh.
The Profession of Journalism
Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say - and faced with a choice of retaining a reporter or a sub-editor, many titles are favouring the former. That could mean a long queue at the subs' desk, but there are other options. The Telegraph is experimenting with the post-moderation of journalist's articles: "The future for sub-editing is bleak," said Williams. The article goes live, and then enters the production queue, or await complaints, presumably. In its defence, Williams said that this move was an experiment - "It's all very new: we are fooling around with this stuff"
"Only around 5% of articles need urgent subbing. News you are breaking yourself. That might require legal advice. The rest... well, why not?
"A lot of journalistic content is over-edited - it goes round again and again - and that might be seen as wasteful.
"On the other hand, a lot of journalists aren't great writers - they're great at getting stories but their prose might be bad. So it's a question of balance and understanding everyone's strengths and weaknesses."
Deirdre Molloy of Chinwag asked what editors were looking for in new hires. Williams and McIntosh agreed that 'the ability to manipulate data' is the primary requirement. The necessary skills are in high demand, though: the Telegraph has been looking to hire a map/data specialist for some time.
Williams suggested that the 20-somethings currently being hired by the paper have an entirely different world-view to older (he is 40) members of staff. They are not looking for content produced in the traditional news manner. In the old days, the news editor defined the areas of interest, reporters would chase after them, editors would dis/approve them, subs would check their copy, designers lay it out - and then we go to press, and goodbye.
This might be defined as a 'vertical' model of news creation and distribution. There's a hierarchy.
Younger people are looking for 'horizontal' options - to be able to interact with the news story in lots of ways: spread it, save it. mash it up, see it in other contexts, zoom out or zoom in with their mouse wheels. Newspapers need to provide the tools to enable this or risk becoming irrelevant.
Who would you bet on?
Perhaps surprisingly, in cost-cutting, credit-crunching times, the answer isn't about doing less, but more. If your content isn't going to become commodified, then you'd better have great content, a great brand, excellent user experience and depth in niches, the panel agreed. As Williams suggested:
“Brands that are trusted and valued, no matter how they are produced, those brands will still be here in 10 years time. You’re looking at areas like finance, politics, certain kinds of sport, where we [The Telegraph] still thrive. During the financial crisis most of us have turned to established news outlets,”
Stabe brought up the example of Ben Goldacre, whose blog is read by thousands of scientists and doctors who have given up on the mainstream media's poor reporting on these areas. Were a national newspaper to take up the gauntlet of reporting these issues accurately, then that is thousands of readers re-won.
The winners will be those who invest in quality, in great web experiences and in shoring up their brand.
More pictures from the event are posted on flickr.