In my opinion: Jack Irvine: Newspapers and the internet

FORMER Fleet Street doyen, Ramsay Smith, always says make your point in the first paragraph. So here goes: if the newspaper industry doesn’t get a grip, we’re all screwed.

Let me elaborate in more measured terms. Two years ago, I chaired a debate where leading industry figures were looking at the threats and opportunities presented by online media.

A News International director for whom I have great respect said that he believed that, within five years, ie 2012, approximately 50 per cent of his company’s ad revenue would be generated by newspaper online sites.

Of course, two years ago, even he wasn’t anticipating the global financial downturn, the subsequent, cataclysmic fall in print ad revenue and nor had he realised that online revenue simply wasn’t going to be a straight substitute to replace its print sister. We were all hoping for a miracle and it didn’t happen.

Working in California recently, I had to ‘rub my eyes’ each morning as The LA Times business section printed a never-ending stream of stories about the disaster befalling the American newspaper industry. At the end of March, the Christian Science Monitor produced its final print edition as a daily paper. The 150 year-old Rocky Mountain News shut down completely in Denver, along with more than 120 other US newspapers in the past year.

You name them, they’re either in trouble or recently have been: The Seattle Post Intelligencer, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Even the mighty, but – in my view – mind-numbingly boring New York Times.

How the WASP readers at The Harvard Club must be squirming in their leather armchairs.

One thing is clear. Few, if any, of my generation of media people appears to have the answers that will translate eyeballs on newspaper websites into advertising gold. I have also gone on record as saying that most of the people running UK newspaper advertising departments couldn’t find their asses in a dark room, so there’s not much chance of them solving the biggest threat facing newspapers for many decades.

Indeed, media commentator, Roy Greenslade, recently remarked that none of the Big Four regional owners in the UK i.e. Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Johnston Press and Northcliffe, have chief executives with printers’ ink in their blood. As Roy says, that doesn’t make them evil people but perhaps it’s a few evil, newspaper geniuses we now desperately need.

Talking of geniuses, the one man who is always ahead of the curve is Rupert Murdoch and his bold plan to charge for newspaper web site access could well be the way forward. However, as his son, James, said in Edinburgh recently, as long as the BBC keeps giving it away (thanks to the generousity of the taxpayer), it’s going to be difficult to charge for it.

I believe there could be two exceptions to that rule – business and sport. Both groups of consumers will, I believe, be willing to pay for up-to-date and informative editorial with a depth that the BBC does not bring or even attempt to bring to the party.

However, geniuses aside, let’s accept that the majority of my generation have a collective brain freeze in the print versus web debate. So, on behalf of, I sounded out a small but frighteningly clever sample of young UK and US industry professionals, all of them schooled at their respective country’s top universities and now working in the print/cyber world.

I have pooled their findings and here’s what they say:

* Print media has another 20 years to stagger on because old buffers of my generation will still provide a market.

* Newspapers will need to re-evaluate what they cover. They need to accept that their own websites and Sky TV will be the environment to break stories.

* Newspapers will need to become sources for investigative journalism (‘out of the mouths of babes’!), editorials, and cultural articles. The Daily Telegraph has proved this with its MPs’ expenses saga. The quick fix internet is not good for this.

My smart kids’ panel goes on:

* Newspaper websites will be able to replace (and increase) lost print readership but they will never replace lost advertising revenues. While a newspaper can simply add pages, online sites cannot increase page views artificially to serve more ads. Cloth will have to be cut accordingly, i.e. more job cuts and an end to excessive senior management salaries.

As regards the wisdom (or lack thereof) of advertising agencies to (a) assist their clients and (b) help boost online revenue, there is a belief that the agencies are often too focussed on creative executions instead of finding a trusted environment with a track record of success.

The smart agencies are simply placing banner ads based on what has worked in the past. One young, New York-based  newspaper website executive remarked: “Ad agencies are too focussed on impressing clients with glitzy ideas for micro sites and sponsorship and often ignore what is actually going to get the client’s message out there: large banners with high frequency and high share of voice.”

I get the feeling that many proprietors are working in a vacuum. This is a war for survival, Lord Copper, so get your heads together and start listening to the 20-somethings in your organisations and in the few switched-on ad agencies who will drop a rose onto the coffin of The Daily Beast but watch grow into a healthy child.

We won two world wars and cracked The Enigma Code. Winning the media wars can’t be more difficult than that. Throw up our hands in surrender and we are well and truly screwed.

Jack Irvine is executive chair of Media House International, a communications company with offices in  London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and New York, specialising in crisis management and government affairs. He formed the company in 1991 after a 24-year career in newspapers including The Glasgow Herald, Western Gazette, Daily Record, The Sun and Sunday Scot.