The end game for newspapers?

Simon Farrington says we are approaching the end of print journalism.

There is a perception held by many that the internet has hastened change in the print industry. I would dispute this. Change is inevitable in all walks of life; given that we have recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, I can never recall a time when we have reflected so much on how our lives have been affected by the Great War and subsequent conflicts. It would be interesting to assess how the press covered the 1914-18 conflict as opposed to more recent wars but that’s for another occasion.

Change within the media has been part of my life for almost 40 years and the difference now is that we are fast approaching the end game for newspapers. This probably gives rise to the perception that change appears more rapid.

But let’s not confuse print journalism and journalism. Have no doubt print journalism will ultimately disappear – just don’t push me for a date but be mindful that the closure of daily and weekly regional newspapers across Britain and across large swathes of the western world will accelerate.

The business model is becoming unsustainable and in many cases only survives now as the crutch to support online news services – the best of which are feeling their way towards profitability. As for national newspapers, there always appears to be owners willing to throw money at them – think of them as the top six of the Premiership funded by mega-rich egotists. The rest of the media industry is made up the rest of the top flight and the Football League!

But professional journalism – the art of researching, questioning, collating, writing, commenting and delivering information with accuracy and integrity – will survive. There will always be room for skilled practitioners whether they ply their trade on the TV, radio, the internet, other social media platforms or even specialist targeted print products that retain a dedicated audience.

My first experience of change came only months into my first role as a naïve 19-year-old cub reporter, urged to come out on strike by union colleagues who were supporting fellow journalists locked out of the Nottingham Evening Post offices by the managing director Christopher Pole Carew. It was a cold and sobering six-week winter dispute with no simple resolution but was seen as a pivotal point as newspaper owners stood up to the powerful print union – the NGA – and what they saw as the increasing militancy within the National Union of Journalists.

But even then the paid-for print media was already in decline. The introduction of successfully targeted pushed-free-through-your-door advertising-laden papers was making inroads into the markets of the paid-for traditional evening and morning titles who were slow to respond as they feared their own free launches would further hit their profit lines.

Decades later those same conservative and often debt-strangled newspaper groups would again sit back and watch the entrepreneurs launch online models, stealing a march on crucial revenue lines such as jobs, classified, property and motors which until then, the giant newspaper groups had treated as cash cows. Watch and learn has been the motto of many publishers and while the online model continues to evolve, it is those not held back by a print past who made the early brave moves into key commercial areas and reaped the rewards.

Newspaper decline in Wales has not been significantly different to other parts of Britain. You could argue that the closure of the pits and the economic hardship that still scars the Welsh valleys was a strong contributing factor to losing newspaper sales in the seventies and eighties. But that declining sales trend has continued to present day and across the nation. But for a few bright blips often revolving around Welsh sporting success, notably in rugby, this decline has been fairly consistent.

Changes in law and legislation – the curbing of young people working all hours as paper boys and girls; the closure of hundreds of newsagents as out-of-town supermarkets took a stranglehold of newspaper sales, dictating terms and shelf positioning; rocketing newsprint prices passed on in cover price increases; the growing sophistication of TV advertising; the reinvention of radio; social mobility and a declining lack of identity within previously close-knit communities… the list goes on but all have played a part in people’s buying habits of newspapers.

There is no turning back. Those who remain loyal to shelling out their cash for a newspaper on a daily or weekly basis are a diminishing and ageing audience.

Publishing companies will not give up without a fight and continue to invest in new technologies and innovative marketing techniques often driven through social media.

But the reality is that the once profit-rich industry is now scrapping for every penny and newspaper sales trends point to an inevitable end.

Fact: young people do not buy newspapers – they go online, chat sites and phones for their news and information. The last decade is clearly indicating that these habits will not be reversed as they age with even more modern technology.

Interestingly new technology has been both a strength and a weakness in the story of modern newspapers. A strength because it has significantly reduced the time from story breaking to printed copy but a weakness because it has led to 24/7 breaking news across a glut of TV, radio and social media channels.

Ten minutes from taking a picture or writing a story to a printed product is truly astonishing. Five hours from printing press to High Street newsagent is truly snail pace. In five hours Wales and the world has moved on.

So the future is online where the competition is fierce and diverse both for the pound in the advertisers pocket and for the customer who will respond to those adverts.

The good news is that the print media, some smarter than others, has woken up to this challenge, with audience numbers soaring as a new style of journalism and information is luring a new audience to click though to professionally-driven news web sites online and on the increasingly important mobile platform.

Strategies for each platform are emerging and new technology will demand ever more astute thinkers and news providers, gauging and capturing the changing markets.

But ultimately the investment in our modern day journalists can only be sustained if both the traditional print advertisers and a new wave of non-print advertisers are led kicking and screaming into the new world of information. And however much they can be lured into this brave new world, they will only remain there if they see a return for their money.

There is a chicken and egg scenario here. Digital advertising rates remain disproportionately low set against print rates yet the digital eyeballs in many cases are already out-stripping print audience. While publishers are moving away from the add-on digital sell for print customers and growing their solus digital customer base, there remains – quite rightly – a reluctance to increase digital advertising prices too rapidly.

What is obvious is that print revenues continue to fall, digital revenues continue to grow but the gap – while shrinking – is still too big. If print died tomorrow, publishers would have to make cost savings that would inevitably lead to damaging restrictions of their online news offering.

Could our major British regional publishers currently survive if their papers closed tomorrow? No. In six months? Unlikely. A year down the line? Starts to get more interesting.

The reality is we might never know the answer to this until a significant number of long-standing regional daily and weekly titles stop their presses for the final time and our digital journalists – backed by advertising revenue – have to take those tentative first steps on their own.

Simon Farrington recently left the media industry after 39 years in the business. He started as a junior reporter, aged 18, in his home town with the Burton Daily Mail and after time spent in Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Scotland he ended up in Cardiff in 1990 with Trinity Mirror where his final role was editor of Wales on Sunday. He is married with three grown up sons and lives in the Vale of Glamorgan. He is now working in the family business, the Elephant & Bun delicatessen in Cowbridge.

4 thoughts on “The end game for newspapers?

  1. Excellent concise analysis by someone that knows. My question is. How will we now display (on the Underground, bus, train, canteen, tearoom) our social/intellectual status/class if not by being labelled a ‘Guardianista’ or a ‘Sun reader’ or a ‘Western Mule’ reader? A ‘clickonwales’ reader doesn’t have quite the same cachet?
    I guess it will have to be the Apple logo on everything then. Note to self (on my Moto watch) – get stuffed olives from that posh delicatessen in posh Cowbridge. People will always be stuffing their faces so it was a good move by Mr Farrington to move from a dying to a flourishing trade.

  2. There are some things about print newspapers that I will miss. The use of The Times Literary Supplement as a liner under the cat litter tray. Lighting the log fire with copies of the Daily Mail. Ermm…use of the Sun in a toilet emergency.
    I will definitely miss cutting out and filing press clippings and articles concerning my clients, friends, enemies. Far better and infinitely less ephemeral than digital. Of course, there is also the obituaries section to note those whom I have outlived!

  3. Simon, A really interesting piece that charts the many pressures on the print product. But you only hint at the conservatism of newspaper owners. That conservatism was manifested not only in their slow response to online, but also in their failure to invest at a time when they were making healthy profits – a common fault in British industry. You are right to remind us that the real issue is the future of journalism, and in that I may be more pessimistic than you are. The proper comparison is not between the future and today’s status quo, but with the past’s more generous staffing quotas that facilitated a wholly different level of coverage of society’s institutions. In Wales, as in other parts of the UK, the kind of coverage that was given in the past to the workings of local authorities, has disappeared from our newspapers. It was never there in broadcasting. Although much attention is now being paid to hyperlocal websites – and,of course, they should be encouraged – the precariousness of their existence, the limitations on their funding and audiences, means that they cannot at present consistently match what the best of local journalism did in the past. I fear that journalism may fall through the crack as papers negotiate the full transition to online. We may need to think of support mechanisms that to date have been unthinkable.

  4. GTD seems right to me. The delivery mechanism is changing but more serious is the reduction of news coverage both local and international. Just check the number of column inches of comment columns (often trivial) to news column inches in even the quality papers, especially on Sundays.. The young don’t read newspapers but then they don’t vote either. Is the internet creating a world of solipsists, glued to their screens for games, fantasies or ersatz communication with their “friends” and little interest in the real world of objects, people and politics?

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