I want to share with you some quotes. Bear with me, if I don’t tell you the provenance of all of them yet.
“As in other industries, the attraction of large scale operation has inevitably meant the demise of the small independent weekly newspaper, in the same way that it has meant the demise of the small corner shop which has given way to the supermarket. In the latter the customer loses the individual service and attention of the shopkeeper. In the former the opinions representing the least powerful social groups are progressively excluded by the process of ownership concentration.”
“Communications media should be accessible to all modes of expression and all social groups with something to communicate.”
“We have arrived at a shameful state of affairs where provincial newspapers often seem to hold no views at all”
“All too often a reporter relies on council handouts, press releases and council minutes which can only provide a very shallow insight into local politics.”
“Local newspapers have been forced to keep the numbers of expensive senior journalists as low as possible and to dilute their ranks with younger less experienced reporters.”
“The economic climate is an inevitable handicap in the pursuit of a varied and heterogeneous press.”
In short, the economics of local media puts pressure on costs. Competition drifts away. The media owners get lazy. The readers drift away, and then so do the advertisers.
All this was written in 1981. The evidence that local media was disenfranchising its readers existed long before the Internet. We can see it in this commentary written nearly thirty years ago. The local press was destroying itself thirty years ago. The Internet is not the cause of the problems local media faces, it is the solution. As the 1981 paper said,
“The most effective answer is to extend the breadth of local media and to allow new developments to grow naturally and apart from the ownership and control of the large media organisations.”
“The future of participation at a local level in media lies not in the entrenched system of regional radio, television and newspapers but rather in the fresh and new developments in media that have yet to fall into the traps that have ensnared traditional formats.”
“The combination of the printed word, television, telecommunications and computer technology give rise to both opportunity and fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of media and its engagement with its audience”.
Where can you find this paper? In a filing cabinet in my garage. It is some 40 pages of analysis of the demise of local media called, “Some Consequences of Trends in Ownership and Control in the Local Media”. I found it yesterday covered in dust. The Author? Me. As a young man I may have needed to get out more.
Roy Greenslade stoked some debate last week about the relationship between journalists and advertising sales. In todays media world there is often a cry for journalists to become more entrepreneurial. Journalists worry that this pressure will compromise their editorial integrity. If they sully their hands with the grubby business of generating money then they might find that they can no longer be critical of those with whom they also have a commercial relationship. Well quite. But this objection is to miss the point about the “church and state” debate.
Back in the eighties, when I was at Reed, we took down the office walls that separated the ad sales teams from the journalists. Nobody was very keen at first, but quickly the benefits became obvious. The two teams began to communicate and share ideas. They even began to respect one another’s different contribution to the business. Some ten years ago when we launched The Industry Standard we had the same debate. The Americans on the team were set on having a wall between the commercial team and the journalists. We compromised on a large pot plant. Soon even the sceptics began to recognise the benefits of everybody working together.
Keeping the church away from the state is no guarantee of ethical journalism. Editors of magazines and newspapers are hired and fired on their ability to drive readership and circulation. Online journalists must at least in part be measured by their ability to attract traffic and develop engagement with online readers. The journalism in national newspapers is almost entirely coloured by this commercial drive. Does every journalist at the Daily Mail, or the Telegraph share the right of centre politics of their employing papers? Or do they adapt their approach to the market their papers serve? And what about journalists who take their skills to the world of PR? Did Kelvin Mackenzie really believe that Freddie Starr ate a hamster, or was he trying to sell newspapers?
We can reasonably conclude that journalists have always at least nodded an acquiescence to the commercial realities of the profession. So what has changed in the digital post recession world? There is now a much greater awareness that for journalism to survive, it has to be funded – and that funding is harder and harder to come by – so the pressure to adapt what is written to the commercial realities is greater than ever. Of course that should be resisted. It is as wrong today as it was twenty years ago to trade advertising for favourable copy without making it clear to readers that this has happened; but it is not wrong for journalists to be integrally involved in the commercial stratagem. There may even be occasions when the best person to evangelise an idea to a commercial partner is someone with an editorial bent. And why not? Good journalists ask good questions, communicate well, can make a compelling argument – so lets use those skills. Will exposure to the revenue generating relationships of a media business fundamentally undermine the independence of a journalist? Not a good one. And it is the very good ones who are learning how to embrace the entrepreneurialism of the digital age.
This is a fascinating presentation from Mary Meeker packed full of statistics about the development of the Internet economy. The most striking conclusion she arrives at is that within five years more people will access the Internet via mobile devices than by a pc. If true this has fundamental implications for the development of strategies for engagement and distribution. Any media business that is still exclusively focussed on migration from print to digital needs to move the thinking on to mobile migration pretty quickly.
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