Print’s not dead

Did you hear Alan Rusbridger and Piers Morgan on Richard Bacon’s Radio Five show in the week?

They both said that the current newspaper model was broken and that newspapers across the world were facing meltdown, and a shift to the digital world. It’s taken me two days to calm down enough to write anything.

What these two actually meant – the same as most other London-based “experts” you hear pontificating – is that the good old days of newspapers being licences to print money are over.

There are countless examples of this, but we once employed a sub editor who’d worked for a national newspaper and – 30 or more years ago – was claiming £250 (or thereabouts) a month in expenses. This was despite the fact that he never went anywhere.

When he queried it, he was told not to rock the boat or he’d spoil it for everyone else.

If a (comparatively) lowly sub was pocketing £250 a month as a tax-free bonus, imagine what the senior management and shareholders were getting. A river of cash.

There are specific reasons for this – the invention of classified advertising was one for example (which in turn led to the growth of union power but that’s another story) – but those days are gone.

It seems to me that the trouble is that people got used to making lots of money and now don’t know what to do.

Many people think the internet is the way forward.

Rusbridger’s Guardian is set on a digital course but loses £40m a year. No-one wants to pay for news. Go behind a paywall and you lose a lot of on-line readers. I buy the Guardian and hope it survives but it can’t carry on losing money as it does. Techies will defend the internet but the Guardian has previously poured and lost millions on the “multimedia platform” that included Channel M.

The fact is that most regional papers in the country lose money on their websites. They make money on their print product, whatever the naysayers think, and some still make a lot of money.

The Chronicle never made a lot of money and doesn’t make a lot now. But we’re not losing money and sales and advertising are strong. So are many other papers.

The Chronicle’s position is best illustrated by our jobs pages. In a good year, during a boom, we have one page of jobs. In a really good week, we might get two. In the current recession we still have one page of jobs.

(Just to digress: the Chronicle has never hoiked up our rates for job but ads but some papers, to be frank, took the piss. Thirty pages of jobs at sky-high rates and a cash-stream that kept everyone in swimming pools; who’d be surprised when the advertisers all migrated to the internet).

To get to the point: it’s simply untrue to say that the newspaper model – selling ink on paper and getting advertises to pay to go in the product – is broken. It’s just not what it was.

And it’s wrong (and racist) to say newspapers all over the world are losing money.

The Times of India for example, makes bucketloads, in a country where a lot of people don’t even have access to the internet. (See the New Yorker magazine article on the topic).

In the UK, more people read regional papers than nationals: 70.7% of all British adults (32.9 million people) read a regional newspaper, compared with 56.8% who read a national newspaper. And 27% of those who read a regional newspaper do not read a national.

Regional papers are still healthy, and still making money from ink on paper.

I’ve heard so-called “experts” say that American newspapers are dying, too. I guess they’ve read reports the American equivalents of Mr Rusbridger.

Again, it’s not true – I have direct contact with the States, as I’m a member of the International Society of Weekly Newspapers Editors, and the States is similar to here.

While dailies are struggling, circulation for weekly newspapers is growing. A survey last year by the National Newspaper Association found that 83% of adults read a community newspaper each week, up from 81% in 2005.

According to the 2007 survey, local community papers are the primary source of information by a two-to-one margin over the next most popular medium, television.

The 2007 findings noted that 99% of readers read local news, up from 95% in 2005; 92% read school news, the same as in 2005, and 94% read state government news, up from 91% in 2005.

Well, you get the picturing. Local papers are not dead and many are in rude health.

The danger with comments like those of Messrs Rusbridger and Morgan is that they could filter down advertising buyers, who’d then by wary about buying advertising in newspapers; a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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