The link below is to an article that looks at why the New York Times Bestsellers List is ‘the’ list.
We live at probably the last moment when press barons such as Rupert Murdoch can hope to shape the political agenda, such are the waning fortunes of the print media. But who founded the popular press – and who created the sensationalist approach of the tabloids?
Some say it was Lord Northcliffe, who established the Daily Mail in 1896. Northcliffe was, however, preceded by the transformative figure of Edward Lloyd. Never heard of him? Lloyd (1815-1890) has never been given his due. He published the first newspaper to sell a million copies and shaped the popular imagination in fundamental ways.
Before he became a Victorian press baron, Lloyd was one of the dominant forces behind the sale of popular fiction to a growing market of increasingly literate working-class people. When we think of the 1840s, we think of the publication of major novels such as Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair. The reality is that many readers were as likely to consume Ada the Betrayed as well as Vileroy, or, The Horrors of Zindorf Castle – both shockers issued by Lloyd’s publishing house.
Hailing from a humble background, Lloyd became a leading publisher in London, promoting a group of hacks who would knock out cheap fiction. He knew what would sell: horrors, romance and thrills.
He launched a wave of “penny dreadfuls” on to the market in the 1830s and 1840s, all assisted by lurid pictures. As Lloyd exclaimed to his illustrators: “There must be blood … much more blood!”
The best known of these stories was The String of Pearls in 1846 which introduced the enduring character of Sweeney Todd. Even before the serial had finished publication, Sweeney Todd had been taken up by the popular stage.
Audiences loved the barber who murdered men who came to his Fleet Street shop for a shave and gave their bodies to Mrs Lovett next door to be made into meat pies. The dark humour is captured in the words of one character who says: “I’d eat my mother, if she was a pork chop.”
This was not the only ghoulish character to emerge from Lloyd’s offices. James Malcolm Rymer wrote Varney the Vampire for Lloyd, the most important undead character before Dracula. This was a form of distinctly working-class horror fiction, marked by a taste for blood and violence.
Lloyd had no time for originality. He built up his firm by publishing plagiarisms of Charles Dickens’s works. The reading public was thus treated to works such as The Penny Pickwick, Oliver Twiss and Nickelas Nickelbery. Dickens was outraged by this treatment but was powerless to prevent such works appearing.
It is possible that many working-class readers first encountered Dickens via a Lloyd plagiarism, rather than one of the author’s own works (a perspective that should make us rethink the initial reception of Dickens).
Cheap newspapers came to dominate Lloyd’s output. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper was launched in 1842 and became one of the most important newspapers aimed at a popular readership at a time when the press had been forced since 1819 by the government to pay stamp duties (the “Taxes on Knowledge”) which inflated the price of print. He combined serious news reporting with stories of horrible murders, train crashes and aristocratic divorces. In some respects, his newspaper employed the techniques of popular fiction to grab an audience with accounts of true crime.
Lloyd also revolutionised newspaper production by introducing Richard Hoe’s rotary press to Britain, which sped up the process of putting out newspapers and made mass publication possible. With the abolition of the stamp and paper duties by the early 1860s, Lloyd was able to lower the price of his paper to one penny. The popular press had arrived.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper was one of a series of mass circulation Sunday papers, including The News of the World (issued in 1843), which created a newspaper reading habit in increasingly literate workers.
Lloyd was also a great believer in self-promotion. At one point he took to embossing coins with which he paid his workers with a stamp promoting his paper. This was denounced by The Times and an act of parliament had to be passed in 1853, making the defacing of the coinage illegal.
As his newspaper became more popular, Lloyd left his penny dreadfuls behind and was later embarrassed that they had been the source of his fortune. His paper tended to support Gladstone and the Liberal party, helping it to dominate mid-Victorian politics. The Conservative Party identified Lloyd’s as promoting “pernicious doctrines”, which included worker rights, free trade and democracy.
Lloyd died in 1890 but his newspaper remained popular, selling a million copies for the first time in 1896. As it went into the 20th century, the paper was outgunned by new rivals such as the Daily Mail and came to an end in 1931, having appeared for almost 90 years.
Lloyd’s reputation has gone into eclipse and he is seldom remembered. He was, however, a true pioneer. His legacy remains the sensationalism of the popular press but it can also be found in every slasher film, vampire drama and gothic romance from Twilight to the television series Penny Dreadful.
The conflict that exists within the organisations that own Britain’s newspapers, and the strategies that they employ in running their businesses, was recently brought into sharp focus. One of the key regional players, Johnston Press, went from publicly-listed administration to a controversial, private rebirth within 24 hours, prompting a wider debate around the state of the industry.
The company, which owns major regionals such as The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post as well as the nationally popular i newspaper, announced on November 16 that it was in administration only to reveal the following day it had been bought out by its debtors and would continue to operate as before but under the new name of JPIMedia.
While it undoubtedly leaves the newspaper titles in a healthier financial position for now, whether or not any optimism will be long-lasting, given the state of the UK’s print newspaper market, is a matter of some conjecture.
In September 2018, I made a submission to the Cairncross Review – a government initiative to examine the options for securing a sustainable future for high quality journalism. The events of the past week have led me back to the following extract:
During the past decade of declining revenues, the traditional local news publishers have used a smoke and mirrors approach to mask their editorial cutbacks. News content has become more regionalised and less relevant, patch offices and receptions have been closing, while titles have continued to be branded as local. There are understandable business reasons for this happening, but these public limited companies have always had profits at their core, often prioritising their shareholders over their readers.
This tension remains at the heart of many newspaper companies – and it is also a parallel to the historic and counter-intuitive decision-making that still remains when it comes to print and web content.
If everyone in the industry – regional or national – knew then what they know now about the challenges faced with monetising their websites through a commercial base then I’m sure the landscape would be very different. The assumption that display advertisers, classifieds, property and motors would migrate seamlessly into digital was fatally flawed because the traditional media giants did not anticipate the competition that would spring up. They had no track record of overcoming it by making their own offerings better than the rest.
And while they were struggling to compete online, time and cash should have been reinvested into the printed products which, while on a declining sales trend, still remain profitable and well-read by certain key demographics.
What the events surrounding the Johnston Press have done is to complete a jigsaw whose outline was already well-known – that the eye-watering return on sales figures pocketed during the 1990s and 2000s were part of a recipe for the mess the industry now finds itself in.
So what value remains in printing traditional newspapers, as opposed to an online-only approach favoured by titles such as The Independent?
There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates the continuing demise of print. But the value of print is not purely economic in nature, and should not be placed in a silo away from the value it brings to news brands as a whole.
There is a negative correlation between the popularity of a newspaper and the trust the reader has in it. If you were to place the sales and trust rankings of the main ten titles in the UK side-by-side you’d see the order turned on its head. Trust is a valuable commodity that not only gives credibility to the printed product but also pervades into the perception of the online offering of the same brand.
Take the Guardian. With one of the highest trust ratings for a national newspaper – and despite its relatively low print sales – it has been able to leverage that emotional attachment and use it to develop an online contribution scheme that will enable it to break even by April 2019. While the printed product may appear to be in decline, it still acts as a firm foundation for the overall news brand as it seeks to evolve.
Newspapers also remain an integral part of the profits in many media portfolios. Within Johnston Press, the printed offshoot of The Independent, the i newspaper, was the jewel in the crown, bought for £24m in 2016 and now being touted at a value of £60m. At a regional level, concentrating resources and a focus on print remains a core and profitable component of several groups, especially those in private ownership, such as Iliffe Media, which owns a range of local newspapers.
For the many
But the perceived value of the newspaper format should not be limited to the balance sheet – there is value for the reader, too. And sometimes it takes a holistic view to fully appreciate what this consists of. While the web may be ideal for delivering bespoke content that can be accessed via search, the newspaper allows people an opportunity for a deep dive into the news – not only reading the stories they are primarily concerned with, but stumbling across material they would never have known about otherwise.
Stories that educate and inform them about their community, their country, their world. Curated for them by trained professionals, rather than through the vagaries of any unregulated social platform. Providing what society needs rather than what an audience wants.
There is a compelling argument that printed newspapers will cease to exist, or may remain in existence as a niche offering. But freed from the shackles of shareholdings – and with a model that promotes a long-term sustainable future over short-term profits – there is an equally compelling argument that newspapers, and the journalism within them, can continue to be a universally valuable part of the media landscape for some time to come.
My first job as a trainee reporter was on a Sunday title. Sundays are a breed apart. We had contempt for our daily sister, were drunk until Thursday and staffed by some of some of the oddest journalists in town. Unsurprisingly, the paper doesn’t exist any more.
There is a different rhythm to newsgathering. Much of the Sunday paper has to be away early, with stories that won’t date. Front page leads have to be exclusives, it’s just too risky relying on events to bail you out – even in Northern Ireland in the 1980s where I was working. This is one reason why the sting and the “kiss-and-tell” are among Sunday staples.
If you are a Sunday paper news editor, you live in fear that the splash (the front page story) you have been nursing all week will leak to another title. The news business is a kleptocracy, and colleagues on your sister title are the enemy. All’s fair in love, war and newsgathering.
Promiscuous Sunday readers
Sunday newspaper readers are different, too. They still have a little time on their hands, and a desire to be entertained. They will frequently buy titles at odds with their daily habits: Guardian readers flirting with the Sunday Times; Sun readers, bereft of the News of the World, picking up the Sunday Mirror or heading “upmarket” to the Mail on Sunday.
Sunday is also the day readers are tempted to take a second title; and in those parts of the UK the BBC euphemistically calls “the nations and the regions”, indigenous papers rub shoulders with the big London players from what is still called Fleet Street.
But as the economics of publishing a newspaper become increasingly challenging, stand-alone titles published once a week look like a luxury to the accountants who now run media organisations. So seven-day operations make sense. In 2012, Rupert Murdoch replaced the discredited News of the World with a Sunday edition of the Sun.
Heritage, politics and independent views
Newsquest executives in Scotland came to the same conclusion when they announced in August that the Herald – its daily broadsheet – was to run seven days a week. The victim was the Sunday Herald, then without an editor.
In normal circumstances, that would have been that. But this is Scotland, and Scotland is not normal. Newsquest’s problem was the Sunday Herald’s editorial support for Scottish independence. Taken down that road by its urbane editor, Richard Walker, the Sunday Herald was the lone media voice supporting independence in the 2014 referendum. Walker went on to become founding editor of the National – designed to tap into nationalist sentiment after the independence referendum.
Although the Herald claims to be neutral on independence – even the dogs in the street know where it sits on the issue. It may not wear a sash and a bowler hat, but it is temperamentally unionist.
With the SNP now established as the natural party of government in Scotland, and with a second independence referendum on the political agenda, killing off the only Sunday in favour of Scotland as a sovereign nation would have displayed a distinct lack of pragmatism.
So, against the tide of consolidation, Newsquest’s single title was replaced by two. Say hello to the “neutral” Herald on Sunday in a racy tabloid livery, and the Sunday National – with Richard Walker again as launch editor.
What the papers say
It’s a brave move for both titles. It is notoriously difficult to persuade readers to change their habits. Can a Herald reader who is wedded to the Observer or Mail on Sunday be seduced back? And what about the fledgling National? It’s tough out there.
The journalism is solid, but – in the first two weeks at least – neither generated the front pages they needed to compete effectively. Rule 101 of a launch edition is to have an exclusive. The Herald’s “Lifeline to Scotland’s islands in jeopardy” did not cut it. The Sunday National led on “Boris ‘set to go for PM’ … and trigger Indyref2”. Billed as an “exclusive”, it was one of those exclusives nobody else would want.
Inside, the National was pacier than the Herald. Even Sundays need news, and it delivered. The internet sensation “giggling granny” was a classic Sunday read, and Jennifer Johnston’s big spread on Scotland’s postcode lottery for primary one parents deserved its prominence.
Foreign correspondent David Pratt brings insight, gravitas and an international perspective to the Sunday National’s broadsheet Seven Days section; its news and features agenda is not quite as unremittingly politically driven as the daily, though Nicola Sturgeon got star billing.
The Herald suffers most from the transition. In tabloid form, it’s like an ageing uncle wearing a baseball cap. The daily broadsheet can sell a story; on the tabloid, the squeezed-in lead barely makes a splash. Inside, the flow of news and features is clunky. “The Week” section, opening the paper, is a mess. A spread on Strictly Come Dancing up front jarred, and the big read on pages six and seven kills the pace up front.
That may change as the paper settles down. But it should be taken as a warning not to mess with the format of the daily, especially if trying to align the titles.
Oddly, both share the same sports coverage and an unbranded Sunday Life supplement. The National needs it to bulk up. It’s a catch-all lifestyle supplement that doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose. The papers also share David Pratt – a great journalist, but sharing writers and sections muddies the waters. Sundays need to be individualistic.
At their best, Sundays are distinctive, tribal and totally attuned to their readers. If they are to carve out a place for themselves, these two new Sundays are going to have to do more to break exclusives that set the agenda for the week ahead – and give Scottish readers the excuse they need to change their buying habits.
I think it’s time to take a reality check on the state of news publishers digital transformation. While digital revenue streams may be delivering, there’s still a strong reliance on print for revenue and research shows readers engage more with print.
Media economist Robert G. Picard. summarises well the key problem with digital transformation. He notes that as news publishers focus on growing digital revenue, they forget their customers and their needs.
He notes that while journalism institutions have embraced the challenge of monetising digital media and increase revenue, this “institutionally focused strategy is designed to serve institutional interests not improve its offerings”.
In fact, newspapers keep offering the wrong things to their audiences. In Picard’s words, they sell readers horses when they actually prefer sports cars.
I think his words also apply accurately to Fairfax Media. Its digital strategy is focused on increasing shareholder revenue, and has very little to do with its journalism or journalistic offerings.
My recent research focused on the digital strategies of Fairfax Media and The New York Times Co. While the two “journalism institutions” pursue different digital strategies, the outcomes for two newsrooms are somewhat different. The New York Times strategy is based on digital-only subscriptions, whereas Fairfax is betting on its digital property listing service (Domain).
The main difference between the two is that while The New York Times continues to invest in its newsrooms and expand internationally (it has journalists filing stories from over 150 countries), Fairfax continues to chop newsroom jobs. It’s currently planning to cut 25% its newsroom staff from its Australian flagship papers to save $A30 million.
Digital is growing, but so what?
In 2016 major newspapers in the United States saw strong growth in digital subscriptions: The New York Times recorded a 47% rise and The Wall Street Journal 23% growth, according to the recently published State of the News Media report by Pew Research Center.
However, the report also notes that “these gains did not translate into circulation growth for the industry overall” and the combined digital and print circulation of newspapers fell 8% – “marking the 28th consecutive year of declines”. Digital advertising revenue also declined, but the proportion of digital advertising revenue of total revenue grew to 29%, because print advertising income continued to decline.
Fairfax, currently in the midst of a bidding war among private equity firms, is still driven by digital revenue from Domain. But the management of the company changed its tune in February, in terms of its print strategy.
Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood explained “while we have considered many options, the model we have developed involves continuing to print our publications daily for some years yet”, adding that “this is the best commercial outcome for shareholders based on current advertising and subscription trends”.
In May, media industry commentator Mark Westfield said that Hellman & Friedman, which is bidding for Fairfax’s media assets, “wouldn’t be interested in buying [Fairfax] unless they saw the assets of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review and Domain as good assets to maintain”.
The sale or closure of newspapers wouldn’t make sense as Fairfax is still print reliant in terms of its revenue, and the same applies to The New York Times. My research shows in 2016 Fairfax print still delivered 78.6% of revenue, while digital was only 21.4% of its total revenue. Digital advertising made 18.5% of the total revenue, and digital subscriptions 2.86% of total.
I also found in a six-year period from 2011 to 2016, digital revenue of Fairfax grew 69% and at the same time print & other revenue declined 31.5%.
In comparison, in a five-year period from 2012 to 2016 (when figures were available) The New York Times digital revenue grew 32% – more slowly than Fairfax’s, but its print revenue dropped less than Fairfax’s – 11.5%. In 2016, digital made 27.8% of its total revenue and print 72.2%. The New York Times also continues to be print reliant in terms of its revenue.
Recent studies by media scholars Neil Thurman and Iris Chyi & Ori Tenenboim suggest that print continues to be strong in terms of readership. A study of 11 British newspapers by Thurman shows that the readers spent more time with print newspapers than with the online edition.
In their study, Chyi and Teneboim found that the “(supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets”.
In the light of this, it can be argued that digital transformation is continuing, but being fully reliant on digital readers may be a myth – as academic Vincent Mosco puts it: “a captivating fiction, a promise unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable.”
Merja Myllylahti, Project manager and author for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) Research Center
The impact of the Internet on the newspaper industry has been starkly highlighted by a graph released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows how employment in that industry in the US has declined by 60% over the past 25 years, from 458,000 in 1990 to 183,000 in March 2016.
This statistic reflects the decline both in the number of newspapers and the shift to reducing the number of journalists and other staff required to produce increasingly digital output from a newsroom. From 1990 to 2014, nearly 300 newspapers closed in the US.
What the data also shows is that at least part of the job decline in the newspaper industry has been taken up by the rapid growth in Internet publishing and broadcasting.
Another growth area in that time has been in the massive increase in the number of people working in public relations which peaked first in 2000 at the height of the Internet “Bubble” to regain those heights in the subsequent years.
The numbers are more stark than they appear because in that same time, overall employment has increased by 23% with the US labour market adding 35 million new jobs.
This data simply confirms what has been obvious to everyone that with a disappearing business model for print newspapers, there is little room for the industry as a whole to continue to the same degree. The consequences of this are again not really going to be that surprising because in the end, it will be dictated by newspapers, who become predominantly digital, can make money. For a very few, this may be through digital subscribers. The New York Times, one of the few news sites that may pull off this transition with over a 1.2 million digital subscribers, still loses money. For most other sites however, digital revenue will come from advertising, driven by the types of content that drives clicks.
The Internet has not just impacted the print newsroom however. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data also shows significant declines in both the magazine and book industries. Again, this decline has been driven by falling audiences and revenue in the switch from the more lucrative print market to digital.
The disruption of the paper-based media industries by the Internet hasn’t just been a question of doing the same thing with fewer people on a different medium. What has also changed is society’s need and desire for this specific type of content. The disruption of these industries isn’t a question of simply not moving quickly enough to adapt to a new presentation format, it is that the content produced has far less appeal to the current audience who are increasingly spending less time on news sites and more time accessing content through social media and in particular, as video.
The disruption of the news industry has been not so much like the shift from typewriters to computers but more like disappearance of the whaling industry as the products of that industry were no longer of importance to society and alternatives were found.
To that extent, all discussions of paywalls and the desperate but illusive search for alternative business models for news organisations are in the end going to prove redundant. It is hard to convince people to pay for something that they have simply decided they don’t want to buy. It is not that the public won’t pay for content on the Internet. They are only too happy to pay for video content through services like Netflix and other video streaming sites and for the equivalent services that stream music. News and opinion, on the other hand is something that increasingly is valued only when it is free.
Despite the shift to digital newsrooms, it is fair to say that Australian newspapers are still reliant on print for their advertising revenue.
The largest newspaper groups, representing 90% of the Australian market, made 80% of their advertising revenue from print in 2015, according to industry data. The data shows the combined advertising revenue of News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media, West Australian Newspapers and APN News & Media in 2015 was A$2.4 billion, of which print brought in A$1.9 billion.
As newspapers manage declines in print circulation and advertising revenue, many have turned to paywalls. These range from hard paywalls which The Australian has, to “freemium” models, such as that offered by the Australian Financial Review and the National Business Review. Freemium paywalls allows readers to access some content, but the papers charge for “premium content”.
My study recently published in the journal Digital Journalism confirms the Australian Financial Review (AFR) has, actually, a very hard paywall. A content analysis conducted of AFR’s homepage alongside the National Business Review (NBR) in New Zealand, reveals the AFR locks 86% of its homepage content. The number of its paywalled articles is twice as high as NBR’s.
The most locked content on afr.com and nbr.co.nz includes hard news and opinion pieces. However, both mastheads give readers a greater access to technology news, and free articles are obviously used to pull in visitors as they try to turn them into digital subscribers. Interestingly, NBR also allows people to read routine market news – such as stock and currency market reports – for free. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal lets its readers access such content without a subscription. Meanwhile, the AFR paywalls all market news.
Digital media experts Chris Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argue that in order to survive, news publishers have to commodify production of ordinary news to “free up resources for more complex work elsewhere”. It seems that NBR has followed this advice as it has outsourced production of content which is also freely available elsewhere. A majority of the paper’s routine market news comes from the local business newswire BusinessDesk.
Print dependency behind the hard paywall
The different paywall strategies of AFR and NBR are linked to their publishing models. NBR is mainly published online as its print version is only published once a week. In contrast, the AFR is published in print six days a week (although its weekend print edition may soon disappear).
NBR’s income is more dependent on digital subscriptions and advertising than the AFR’s, and its hard paywall is most likely linked to print reliance in terms of revenue. In contrast to NBR, AFR’s digital subscriptions are mostly linked to its print newspapers as they are sold as a bundle. In her research paper, Andrea Carson estimates that digital subscriptions make up 33% of the the AFR’s total circulation.
However, the AFR’s readership has clearly moved to digital platforms. This suggests the paper may be wiser to have a less strict paywall. Its paywall is currently among the most expensive in the world. The latest Roy Morgan figures show that in March 2016 the AFR had 417,000 print readers and 938,000 digital readers.
Commenting on the figures, Roy Morgan Research chief executive officer Michele Levine said that “in balancing the pros and cons of reaching print and digital audiences, publishers and advertisers clearly need to have a thorough understanding of who reads only one platform or the other, who reads both, and what the proportions means”.
But do they make money?
Fairfax doesn’t publish digital-only subscription figures for the AFR even though it does so for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Perhaps this itself is telling. It is impossible to know if the AFR is profitable or not, and how much its digital-only subscriptions contribute to its revenue. What we do know is that Fairfax is cutting 100 jobs from its Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms, and these cuts include staff from the AFR.
Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood recently said that for the Fairfax mastheads, 65% of advertising revenue is generated on the weekend, except for the AFR which was “profitable on weekdays only”.
Paywalls are not a saviour of newspapers, and even the Financial Times, which has been hailed as an example of successful paywall structure, is struggling. The paper is now facing cost cuts in its newsrooms and production despite the fact that it has 566,000 digital subscribers and growing digital revenues.
As a Fortune article points out, “the reality is that, despite its digital growth, the Financial Times is facing the same challenge as thousands of newspapers, magazines, and other traditional print publications around the world. Namely, the fact that print advertising, which still generates far more revenue than digital, continues to shrink”.
Regional newspapers next
Paywalls continue to emerging, disappear and evolve. Last year, News Corp’s British tabloid The Sun abolished its hard paywall, and its traffic grew 26% as a consequence. Its experiment with the paywall was doomed.
APN’s Australian regional newspapers started to charge for digital news content last year. In New Zealand, a handful of regional newspapers have also introduced fees for their digital content.
Most recently, The Otago Daily Times (in Dunedin) introduced a metered paywall. The paper’s editor Barry Stewart commented that “we cannot win the clickbait war. We are investing in what we do best. We want to protect our journalism and this paywall is the logical way to do that”.
Perhaps the model will work better for regional papers?
In a 2013 Monthly essay Eric Beecher warned of a looming “civic catastrophe” for Australia if the decline of newspapers continued as it had been in the preceding years. The Australian’s report on a Fairfax plan to dump print and go digital-only, as yet unimplemented but convincingly detailed in the leaked 2013 document prepared by management consultancy firm Bain & Co, suggest that such a move is, if not a certainty, highly probable in the foreseeable future.
News Corp’s only substantial competitor in the print journalism sector may be on the brink of giving up the ghost, as has long been speculated even by its natural supporters such as Beecher. If it does, hundreds more jobs will go, along with the many hundreds of experienced, skilled journalists and editors already shown the door by the company.
All of this comes in the wake of the UK Independent’s announcement last week of a move to exclusively digital publication. As with Fairfax, calamitous declines in print circulation at the Indy – a poster title for innovation and editorial independence in days long gone – have made such a move entirely rational from the financial perspective of its Russian proprietor.
Many newspapers in the US have made the transition from print to digital, in the hope of fixing the broken business models of the analogue age.
Many of us have already given up on newspapers, and won’t miss print if indeed it dies out as a mass media platform. We access our news on iPads, or mobile phones, or laptops, and find ourselves turning actual, real pages to read our journalism only in those rare – and becoming rarer all the time – situations where there is no internet access.
And by those digital means of communication and sharing we have access to more news and journalism than any previous generation ever did. I read more news, not less, because of the online revolution.
Also, I read the news from the UK, the US, indeed from wherever in the world I choose, just as easily as I could once buy the print edition of The Guardian in my old home town of Glasgow. More easily, since I don’t even have to leave the house to enter the globalised public sphere of fact-based content available to me and every other human being on the planet with access to an internet connection and a networked device.
My problem now is not that of accessing quality journalism – as many pessimists predicted it would become as a result of news industry turmoil – but how to filter and sift the vast quantity of journalism which is available to me from around the globe on an hourly and daily basis, so that I can manage the flow of useful information and make some sense of the world.
Fairfax’s newspapers may be dying, then, like those of The Independent and other companies which through bad management and poor decision-making blew the digital challenge. But news and journalism thrive as never before.
Returning to Beecher’s dire warnings of “civic catastrophe”, will we miss newspapers when they finally disappear?
Someone once cheekily speculated that, on current circulation trends, the death of newspapers would come sometime in the first quarter of 2034. Personally, I believe that print will survive as a niche medium, like vinyl records, for as long as there is a demand for the tactility of words stamped on dead trees. And for a long time yet there will be those who refuse to join the online era, or who cannot for various reasons.
And there will be content for which, for one reason or another, online dissemination is not optimal, or which does not need the internet to circulate. Print continues to expand in media markets such as India and many African countries, where digital infrastructure and online culture remain underdeveloped. Paper has its place, and will keep it for a while yet.
And as long as the resources and professional values required for what we think of as “quality” journalism make the transition to digital platforms, then we have little to fear from the death of newspapers in themselves.
It was Rupert Murdoch who declared something to the effect that “we are not in the business of printing words on dead trees”. Content is king, and newsprint is just a carrier medium, now passing into history like hot metal presses and lithographs before it. Journalistic content can be produced to just as high an editorial standard online as off, and the fetishisation of print misses the point.
The real concern about the future of Fairfax and other dysfunctional former print behemoths – as articulated by Beecher in his 2013 essay – is that in their rush to maximise profits they abandon this thing we call “quality” journalism, and the journalists required to produce it, to the detriment of the diversity and independence of Australia’s political culture.
New digital entrants such as the Guardian Australia, Daily Mail Australia and The Conversation, or local editions of Gawker and Buzzfeed, are picking up some of the slack created by an already hollowed-out Fairfax. But the domination of News Corp’s titles in the Australian news media environment can only become more pronounced if Fairfax’s decline continues to the point where its print titles disappear entirely.
The Murdoch empire has invested more, and adapted better to the digital challenge than its main competitor. It deserves credit for that. But it cannot be in the interests of Australian democracy that any private proprietor – left, right or neutral – should be so editorially dominant as News will become if Fairfax disappears as a significant news producer.
The death of Fairfax as a serious producer of journalism, should that outcome transpire, will undoubtedly leave a gap in the Australian public sphere; what we might call a “diversity deficit”. A major question for Australian civil society in the coming years will be how to fill that gap and ensure the survival of healthy media pluralism.
The doomsayers of Australian journalism will have to hold their tongues this week as the Huffington Post breathes some fresh life into the local media scene.
Launched in Australia today, HuffPo, as it’s affectionately called by journalists, joins a growing number of international news organisations which have found a new audience – and it hopes advertisers – in Australia.
The opening of HuffPo Australia’s doors (temporarily in the old Fox offices at Darling Harbour) is indeed welcome news for the 28 or so local staff who have been hired by the global journalism player which has already extended its reach to 13 countries.
The global takeover isn’t a bad effort from the team behind editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington who only established the online site in 2005 as an alternative left wing (Americans would say “liberal”) outlet and alternative to news aggregators.
The Huffington Post deal in Australia is interesting, with a 49% stake in the venture held by Fairfax Media. The commercial details of the arrangement haven’t been publicised, but some have suggested Fairfax fought hard for the deal as a way of “keeping its friends close and its enemies even closer”.
There are however fears from a few media watchers that HuffPo will cut Fairfax’s audiences which are already feeling the pinch from locally grown digital sites such as Crikey, The Conversation, New Matilda and Mumbrella as well as the relatively new international players, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, and BuzzFeed.
The Huffington Post’s chief executive in the US Jimmy Maymann however is buoyant about the deal, which mirrors that in other international ventures.
He told the Australian Financial Review earlier in the year:
“Our ability to partner with established local players has been critical to the success of our rapid international expansion over the past two years. We have created a very effective repeatable model that has enabled us to enter new markets and establish strong positions very quickly.”
HuffPo can credibly claim to be an international news organisation, having won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It boasts 214 million unique visitors each month, and there is no reason to believe it will not achieve its stated target of becoming a top-five publisher in Australia in three to five years.
HuffPo Australia boasts a strong team with good local connections. The chief executive Chris Janz comes lately from blog publisher Allure Media, which was bought by Fairfax in 2012, and the editor-in-chief Tory Maguire brings a long News Corp pedigree.
Also in the news crew is Canberra-based political editor Karen Barlow, one of the many talented journalists axed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in its cull of international services, a former executive producer of video at AAP Tom Compagnoni, and a former assistant Daily Mail editor Chris Paine. The list of highly regarded journalism hires goes on, but features many who have either jumped or been pushed out by the seismic change in the country’s newspaper landscape.
So while the local industry is no doubt delighted that high calibre journalists are finding work with the Australian edition of HuffPo – the one question readers should be asking is will the Huffington Post bring them anything different to the already established media outlets.
Point of difference?
Certainly HuffPo gains much by linking its brand to the high standard of journalism that many Fairfax reporters demonstrate. Look for example at the coverage of tax avoidance by multinationals operating in Australia, or the revelations and reporting of Australia’s scandal ridden financial services sector.
If HuffPo Australia champions more of this reporting, and helps grow advertising revenue for both it and Fairfax, then that will auger well for all. But The Huffington Post has built much of its reputation on providing a space for bloggers, for insiders, to write about their passions.
HuffPo does not restrict itself to the normal crew of footy commentators, political analysts and think tank spruikers. HuffPo asks everyone to write. And it is this network of real-time bloggers in Australia that could be the making of the site, even if it is the use of such unpaid writers that has caused the organisation the most criticism at home and abroad. Although to be truthful, there are many sites in Australia and internationally who do not pay writers, however good they maybe, including The Conversation.
What really matters is whether or not HuffPo can attract new and emerging thinkers who can write, or if they will lean on the same-old crew who pop up on QandA on a Monday night.
It’s a now a truism that the internet provides us with what it thinks we want to know, not what we need to know. As readers, we hope the paid Australian curators at HuffPo can help change that adage. If they can, it might be enough to save Fairfax.