IF you are reading this, it is reasonable to assume that, like me, you are a news junkie. We like – indeed, love – newspapers. But we also know they are in peril with changes to their business model: advertising migrating to the web, declining circulations and youngsters accessing online.
Can the print press survive? There is also a very real question about how we define a newspaper. What are we buying when we hand over our money or subscribe? Not just reporting but comment and analysis. But if newspapers slim down, when do we reach a tipping point where the copy is so insubstantial, we no longer need to read them?
What will we do should they no longer start setting the agenda? How long does it take before the newspaper is no longer a ‘must buy’?
Judging by recent reports on allmediascotland.com (here and here), The Scotsman and its sister title, Scotland on Sunday, are being slimmed down, in terms of head count and, in the case of the latter, size (from broadsheet to compact).
For its publisher, Johnston Press, I am minded to something its chief executive said during a House of Lords select committee on media plurality, at which I was also giving evidence.
Ashley Highfield said, when asked about newspapers versus hyper-local websites (here, around the 16:22 mark): “I think the important thing is to not see them [hyper-local websites] as a replacement or ultimate substitute for local Press, because there is fundamentally no business model. They do not scale, normally, the amount of revenue they can make if they are trying to run as a commercial entity: that is, to employ a journalist to work for them on a salary. You will end up with a lot of these people doing it for the love of doing it, but that is not necessarily a scaleable business.
“The route that we are taking is to engage with a lot of these people and then get them to submit copy to us. That is not terribly radical. I have brought along one of our newspapers; it could have been any one. If you read a local paper, you have pages and pages of this. It is called “Down Your Way” in this paper, but it is hyper-local news, pages and pages of it, all contributed by people in the community who usually write it for free. They may occasionally get a stipend from us or some small amount. Moving that into the internet world, I see that as being a sustainable model where we aggregate and act as the curator for a lot of voices in the community. I do not really care whether you call them micro bloggers or whatever, but I think that our role going forward, therefore, is just as important as it has ever been in print.” (page 13 of this)
But my advice is rather to take a leaf out of Lord Carte’rs report – Digital Britain – and think about pipes and poetry. What we want is the content; how it arrives is the pipes. The money for and from the pipes should be used to sustain newspapers and their journalism.
Everyone being on the internet will become as necessary to the democratic, economic and cultural well-being of our society as radio and then television were in the last century.
But so far, paywalls appear not to have delivered the income needed to fund serious journalism.
So, are there any solutions?
Firstly, all newspapers should be encouraged, or required to go, online but there must be a paywall so that there is a level playing field or competitive environment for all.
There then needs to be a Technology Fund which uses the VAT raised from mobile and computer sales and contracts – ring-fenced – to invest in ensuring that all the Press can fully migrate to the internet.
Some support for my proposal, at least in principle comes from both the National Union of Journalists and also Roy Greenslade in his Guardian blog; http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/nov/06/nuj-calls-for-public-subsidies-to-save-newspapers-from-closure.
I would seek to avoid the term, subsidy – as mentioned in a recent blog by The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, considering a proposal regarding local journalism from the National Union of Journalists – and replace it with investment, but would also point to the fact that the Ofcom idea of a public service publisher – plus the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s Scottish Digital Network (note, ‘network’, not ‘channel’) – could yet provide a framework for developing such ideas.
Secondly, the BBC, wonderful though it is, gives to the world online news for free. The time may be coming when some of the BBC’s online offerings should be available to visitors by the following means: if you are a licence fee payer, you have full access via entering your licence fee identification but, if you are from outside the UK or do not pay a licence fee, then you have to pay for deeper content and analysis but can get the headlines for free.
Obviously, these ideas require some development but if we wish to see a future in which we still have The Herald and The Scotsman, now is the time to act.
Robert Beveridge is a visiting professor at the University of Sassari, Sardinia, Italy.