Newspapers Should Not be Festishised as Industry Looks Towards Uncertain Future

Last week’s Scottish government seminar (here) on the future of newspapers began rather depressingly with the search for scapegoats.

One MSP blamed the precipituous decline in Scottish press circulation on ‘dumbing down’, as if the entire advanced capitalist world was not experiencing the same trend. Someone else blamed it on American management (until someone pointed out that Johnston Press are a Scottish company). It took the man from the distributor, Menzies – Ellis Watson – to name the ‘elephant in the room': “the cancer afflicting the Scottish press”, as he put it.

The problem, he argued in a persuasively no-nonsense intervention, is two-fold. Yes, there is a short-term credit crunch, and a corresponding downturn in advertising revenue which newspaper companies have to ride out as best they can, like other business sectors. Maybe the government can help out in this respect, with financial incentives for young readers, or encouragement for public sector advertising to be placed in the local press. But the main problem is long-term: the gradual, now accelerating move of readers from print to digital platforms.

Print culture is dying out, to be replaced by the interactive, participatory networking world of the internet. As I have argued repeatedly in various fora, newspapers will survive for a while yet because they are inherently useful objects, much more convenient and user-friendly for the purpose of consuming journalism than a lap top or mobile device. The newspaper, like the printed book, retains, for the moment, key advantages over electrically-powered, expensive gizmos such as Amazon’s Kindle.

But as the man from Menzies said, the great shift to digital is underway, and unstoppable. The challenge for Scottish newspaper companies is to manage that process, and to successfully transfer their journalistic brands to the online environment. The print business model is bust, and managers (as well as journalists) need to adapt to the new landscape.

This is not only a Scottish problem, although it has a Scottish dimension. Our newspaper sector is possibly the most competitive in the world – a complex mix of local, Scotland-wide and UK titles. The richness and diversity of our press has rightly been a source of national pride since the Enlightenment, but now makes Scotland vulnerable to what is, let’s remember, the major communications revolution since the invention of print. Titles will close, or merge, or be bought out by companies with less interest in journalism than the bottom line.

There is opportunity here, though. Despite the prevailing gloom about the future of newspapers, the good news is that more journalism is being produced and consumed than at any time in human history. The demand for news, commentary, analysis, debate is insatiable, even amongst the oft-maligned young, who in the past rarely read newspapers, but are now accessing journalism through the variety of mobile platforms available.

Not only that, they are producing ‘citizen’ journalism, sharing news and information on social networking sites, subverting the traditional top-down media establishment with user-generated content of all kinds. Coverage of the Mumbai attacks last year was fuelled by such content. All good, although some at last week’s seminar expressed unease at the thought of ‘grainy video’ and amateur reportage making it into the public domain. Sorry, but you’d better get used to that, because the future is one in which the old distinctions between professional and amateur in journalism will erode and blur.

Newspaper is just fish wrap, a disposable package, and it should not be fetishised as a good thing in itself. In journalism, content is what matters, and the quality of the journalistic brand under which content is sold. Scottish media companies, print and broadcast, will survive only if they recognise this truth and invest accordingly in the democratising technologies, the flexible journalists and the multimedia training required for survival in the digital age.

Brian McNair is the author of News & Journalism In the UK, 5th edition, published on February 19 by Routledge.

Comment: Brian McNair is absolutely right when he says that newspaper economics are irreparably broken and that their difficulties cannot be solved by cash to tide them over the current downturn. In fact, the recession creates an even deeper financial hole for newspapers in Scotland and elsewhere.

Their managements aren’t stupid. They can see that news is going digital. What isn’t clear to anybody is how they can make a profit from shifting their product online. Meanwhile, print readers may be declining in number, but they still provide many times more income than visitors to newspaper websites, no matter how numerous they are.

In theory, it could be different if newspapers closed their print operations and moved entirely online. Income would fall dramatically, but so would the costs. I can’t see any newspaper’s shareholders allowing that move. If it did happen it would be through the same process as Woolworths’ transformation into a website. Like Woolies, the title may be the only asset of lasting value belonging to many papers.

I agree with McNair that this crisis also an opportunity. The decline in newspaper sales does not mean that people have lost their thirst for news. They’re just seeking it elsewhere. The problem is that, so far, there isn’t an adequate substitute for the good, old-fashioned, local newspaper.

Blogging software could provide the foundation for a new style of local media. It’s cheap, easy to use and doesn’t require massive technological input. The trouble is that, at the moment, it’s probably not profitable enough to support the professionals needed to run it.

I know there’s been a great deal of focus on the material produced by so-called ‘citizen journalists’ in places such as Mumbai and Gaza. It’s hard to see this enthusiasm being sustained beyond very specific and dramatic events. To use another buzz phrase, ‘user generated content’ doesn’t just happen, it requires a great deal of effort. For a local website to succeed requires somebody to cajole local sports organisers, community councillors and the rest to produce material which might then need to be diplomatically polished in order to make it usable.

So why can’t local newspapers make a smooth transition from print to digital? Perhaps they can, but I’m afraid I can’t see how they can take on board such a fundamental change in their business model. Much of this is down to the way that cost has been the main way to exclude competition. It’s simply been too expensive to set up printing, distribution and staffing for many new papers to successfully enter the market. But launching a website is relatively cheap, which makes newspapers that move online vulnerable to upstarts.

If all this heralded an era of competitive local news it would have to be welcomed. Unfortunately, without intervention all I can see is a continuing erosion of the key democratic role of the local media which has been going on for years. Few papers provide the level of coverage of courts and councils which are necessary for local democracy and justice to be seen to be done. It’s a great loss.

There is an opportunity to revive this vital tradition thanks to the digital revolution. But it won’t happen as long as the discussions revolve around preserving the current printed status quo.

Nick Clayton

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