Have we seen the point where traditional printed media’s business model is just no longer sustainable?
The press industry is having a bit of a hard time at the moment, and don’t we know it. On a national level several of the biggest UK newspapers – titles like the Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Express – are rumoured to be looking at making serious cuts to editorial staff, with journalists and the humble but vital subbers being the ones getting it in the neck more often than not. The issue has reached such a pique that it’s even been debated on the floor of the House of Commons with the then Minister for Culture Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, offering the luke warm comfort that “Lord Carter is considering how to sustain quality news provision across all media at a local level as part of the final “Digital Britain” report”. Which was received about as enthusiastically as a hybrid car on Top Gear.
On a regional level in the UK the *ahem* news is, if anything, less positive. With staff being made redundant from major regional titles in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and countless other cities across the UK. The real casualty of the year though, is the London regional press. Competing freesheets The London Paper and London Lite both hit the buffers over the past year and a bit with only the doughty, stoic Metro remaining. Even the once preeminent evening paper of London, the Evening Standard, having seemingly fought off competition from its free rivals, is itself set to become a freesheet.
It’s safe to say then, that 2009 was very much a bad year to be in newspapers and it’s pretty much the same world wide. Why is this though? Are journalists effectively being laid off because they cant do their jobs or are too expensive all of a sudden? Of course not, journalists the world over are getting the boot because the industry they work for is no longer viable, the business model is broken. The, often very talented, intelligent and savvy people are finding themselves out of a job because consumer habits have turned away from a model which has worked, on one level or another, for a good couple of hundred years.
Take a look at the ad above, you’ve probably seen it before and might even have found it funny. It was originally dreamed up for The Sun’s 40th anniversary celebrations and meant for a viral only campaign. Eventually the campaign went big though so they decided to give it a TV Run. The strange thing about it though is that it, and it’s funnier follow up, both illustrate quite how obsolete the medium of the newspaper is. It looks anachronistic, quaint even, when set against the uber-modern template of the iPhone ads, even with a tongue in cheek approach.
I’m not going to lay out all of the reasons why I, and for that matter all the reasons others, think that traditional media like newspapers are failing. The threats to their markets are everywhere from podcasts, better mobile 3g coverage, changes in the habits in which people consume their media and even the humble internet. You can debate these all you want but Newscorp, owner of everything from Fox and Sky to The Sun and The Times place the blame firmly at the feet of the internet as their main threat. In typical old media fashion Rupert’s gang have fired the first shot across the bows of Google by blocking their search bots from The Times’ site. You could say that Rupe is still smarting from the somewhat less than resounding success that was Newscorp’s acquisition of the old and busted myspace for a whopping $580 back in 2005.
In my mind the myspace disaster is probably a great test case in the difficult relationship between old and new media. Newscorp’s shiny new myspace got beaten beaten by the upstart Facebook, now ironically worth many, many times what myspace was sold for, and from that point Newscorp essentially took their ball home. Game over.
So where is the solution in all of this? Rather oddly I believe it’s The Guardian who have got the right ideas to cope with the future of publishing. I say rather oddly because if you were paying attention I mentioned them at the start of this post as being one of the ones with the threat of redundancy over their staff, in fact they also owned MEN Media who made many journalists redundant in 2009 and, to top it all off, their parent company, Guardian Media Group, lost £90m last year. Strange choice you might say then. Well yes and no.
The Guardian create – for my money at least – far and away the best online content of any organisation bar the BBC. This content isn’t just well regarded by those in the UK, I constantly get friends from India, Malaysia, Canada, The US and even Serbia linking to me to Guardian stories. Their podcasts are also fantastic and some of their video reporting would more than stand up to that of half of the UK’s terrestrial channels. It’s not just good journalism though, it’s innovative journalism. When the story of the MP’s Expenses Scandal broke The Guardian did something very, very clever and published all the leaked documentation onto the internet and asked their readership to scrutinise the very people they elected. As we all know, there’s nothing like a bit of local interest to spike someone’s attention and it soon began to yield its fair share of stories, Duck Islands, Moat Cleaning, Hob-Nobs and all. This simply wouldn’t have been possible without ‘citizen journalism’. What’s more they’ve also just launched an iPhone app which will, I promise you, blow your mind with just how great it is.
So in short, the coming decade’s successful media organisation will have to constantly reinvent its model. It will need to sometimes absorb a loss and it will definitely have to engage and enthuse its readers to make them part of the story. As a model press on its own is very probably a busted flush however, using the internet well – and by that I mean wringing every drop of value possible from it – must surely be the only way forward if there is any hope for survival for some of the oldest and most respected newspaper titles in the world.