THE newspaper industry has been struck by a series of blows: a severe cyclical recession; a profound structural shift in information technology and communication that has re-written the economics of communication; and a decline in literacy.
Newspapers have suffered heavy losses as ‘stable’, so-called ‘recession-proof’ classified advertising revenue has plunged. Concurrent with this has been a migration of readers from the habit of print purchase to web and internet where an initial ‘free’ news offer has fuelled an expectation that all newspaper content should be a free good and entitlement.
Other factors that have weighed include increasing encroachment of publicly-funded competition, either in the form of BBC news localism or ‘free’ (sic) ‘newspapers’ (sic) published by local authorities as a propaganda tool and vehicle for advertising previously carried by local and regional newspapers.
What, then, are the possible grounds for hope? The first is that public hunger for news, analysis, comment and gossip has not in any way lessened.
The response so far to this triple crisis has been severe and sustained cost-cutting, slashing at the very raison d’etre and means of newspaper survival: the provision of broad, comprehensive, accurate, reliable and up-to-the-hour news and analysis.
But we should also recognise that it is not just under-staffed newsrooms that account for diminished coverage of set pieces such as – here in Scotland, for instance – the Church of Scotland General Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The public’s interest in, and appetite for, such detailed, pro forma reports has diminished, just as the appetite for the traditional public meeting has diminished.
What deepens this crisis is that, across most newspaper groups, such is the heads-down focus on cost-cutting and getting out the next day’s edition that little strategic thinking is being done at the editorial (as opposed to managerial) end as to how we break the downward spiral.
What, then, are the possible grounds for hope?
The first is that public hunger for news, analysis, comment and gossip has not in any way lessened. The mushrooming of websites and blogs testifies to this. The core function of journalism is as much in demand as ever. The public still hungers and thirsts for news of their area, or specialism or sport or hobby, just as, in any office or home, we drop what we’re doing and look up when someone walks in and says the three greatest words that are the harbingers of news: “Have you heard…?”.
News – from extraordinary events to ordinary people doing extraordinary things – will always be in demand. And changing public preferences as to content should not faze us. It is a fact to which we have had to adapt since the first newspaper (not just the first iPad).
Similarly, the public (and advertisers) do value a news and information service that is perceived to be accurate, intelligent, reliable, topical and produced to a high professional standard. That is why not every ‘news’ site on the internet is accorded equal authority in the world beyond its immediate coterie of supporters. The public has a powerful preference for a professionally-produced service, news values brought to bear and news stories presented in some sort of hierarchy of importance rather than just a stream of consciousness.
What hope is there for newspaper titles in Scotland?
I do not profess to have any inside track on what newspaper managements are thinking. But it would be surprising to me if in the next few years the Scotsman and Herald titles are not brought in under one management. The two titles could remain editorially separate with their own editors, geographic, cultural and political biases. But they would shelter under a common umbrella of shared services – marketing, distribution, advertising, HR, wages, library and IT services. This would shave millions of pounds off costs while offering advertisers a more compelling circulation proposition and also maintaining the editorial integrity of the two titles where it matters.
The ‘shared umbrella’ approach would seem to offer the best means of releasing more resources for news, analysis and op ed commentary as befits two distinct and separate titles.
The same umbrella could also provide a platform for independent internet sites and blogs. Selected on merit, these would immediately benefit from exposure to a far larger audience than is currently the case, thus both increasing the range and diversity of opinion and commentary while securing the survival of many that are at present struggling financially.
Printed newspapers and their internet editions have to offer a proposition that will draw advertisers back to them. The decision of the London Evening Standard to drop its cover price altogether and be a ‘free’ perk for commuters has brought a circulation rebound and a recovery of advertising revenue sufficient to put the title back into profit. That is an interesting example which Scottish titles may find it beneficial to explore.
I do not doubt that under any new regime editors will continue to separate the wheat from the chaff – and print the chaff. But this does not fill me with despair.
One of the great attractions of newspapers and well-designed websites is not just the pulling power of trivia to get the eyeball onto the page, but the pleasing charm of serendipity: the items discovered as readers travel through to their favourite section or columnist. It is surely wise not to be too censorious of trivia or serendipity. It is what has helped journalism to survive even into this new ice age, and, I suspect in time, to prevail through it.
Bill Jamieson is executive editor of The Scotsman. He is writing here in a personal capacity. A version of this first appeared on www.scottishreview.net