The commercial director of London’s Evening Standard, Jon O’Donnell, was widely quoted this week when he said that newspapers, especially his own, had a healthy future:
“The printed version has a healthy life ahead of it. The digital world is immense. But people still like the tangible asset of a newspaper. They like to tear them and dispose of them.”
Now, it would be a little odd if a commercial director for three newspapers – he also oversees the Independent and i – ran around saying “print is doomed”, but basing his optimism, at least in part, on people’s love of papier mache and recycling seemed a bit odd.
Those who run paper mills or provide them with equipment don’t seem quite so sanguine about the future.
Voith, a German company that makes paper mill machinery, announced this week that it will cut 710 jobs because demand for graphic paper (used for magazines or newspapers) has fallen. Voith says tablets are to blame:
“… the ongoing digitalization of everyday life through tablets like the iPad and the ensuing changes in consumer behavior is faster than expected having a negative impact on the demand for so-called graphic papers”
This message was backed up by RISI, an information service for the forest products industry, which said yesterday that world newsprint production would contract by 5.5 million tonnes over the next five years as newspaper demand shrank “due largely to media tablets and mobile devices”.
But possibly the most grimly amusing assessment of newspapers’ future came in a comment on Roy Greenslade’s blog:
“It [newsprint] definitely has more usage than you think. Here at Vernacare we buy all the available newsprint that is either recycled by the consumer or the newspaper that had not been sold by the retailer”
And what does this booming market for old newsprint produce? Disposable bedpans and urinal bottles.
Lisa Simpson: Cheer up, Dad. Did you know the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’?
Homer: Yes. Crisitunity.
I can’t remember when Irish journalism last looked so interesting. I may be paying closer attention with a view to returning home from Britain but I also can’t help noticing many more people are finally talking about the future of news in Ireland.
In the apocryphal Chinese proverb, interesting times are double-edged, of course. It is the sinking of print circulation and advertising revenues that is behind this drive to find a model that works (and pays) for Irish journalism on mobiles, tablets and the web. And that will mean further job losses and remaining journalists being required to do more.
However, job losses and growing workloads have been the reality in Western newspapers for years. It is only over the past couple of months that I’ve seen a concerted drive by Irish journalists to figure out the future of their trade. Even more significant I think is the visibility of this conversation between papers and new media outfits and between journalists of all stripes and their readers.
Old media Vs …
Six weeks ago, Alan Crosbie, the chairman of Thomas Crosbie Media, which publishes the Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post, gave a speech entitled “Media diversity and why it matters”. One line – “the threat to humanity posed by the tsunami of unverifiable data, opinion, libel and vulgar abuse in new media” – understandably overshadowed the wider point of the speech, which was a plea for newspapers to get a share of television licence fee funds. Despite that, the whole speech is worth your time. For example, Crosbie rightly points out that good journalism should be platform-independent:
“What’s important is the information itself, not what carries it.”
He also says information needs to be of good provenance. I couldn’t agree more, but where his argument falls down is in assuming that it is only newspapers that verify information and in missing possibly the greatest tool to help in verifying any piece of online information – the weblink. It is one of newspaper websites’ greatest failings that they have ignored linking out for so long.
Shane Hegarty, the Irish Times Arts Editor, knocks down Crosbie’s argument well here (although I found it odd he didn’t make reference to a commentary piece three days earlier by Conor Brady, the former Irish Times editor, which was largely in favour of the argument for a state subsidy). As a counterpoint to Crosbie’s arguments, Hegarty cites the words of John Paton, who despite almost constantly berating newspaper executives is fast becoming their guru du jour. Hegarty sums up Paton’s approach well in what should be a mission statement for publishers everywhere:
“It is about innovation rather than retrenchment; collaboration rather than the ‘Them vs Us’ attitude that is prevalent across the media spectrum and which coarsens much of the discussion.”
… New media
We need to bear in mind that the technology making these conversations so much more visible today is the same as that most often cited for the destruction of print’s business model – the web. Brady’s piece offers praise for some of Ireland’s emerging “new media” producers:
There are, of course, some fine internet-based news media. For example, high standards, combining accuracy and urgency, are set by storyful.com, established by RTÉ’s former man in Washington, Mark Little. David Cochrane’s politics.ie is a valuable and intelligent forum for discussion of important public issues. thejournal.ie is an excellent public notice board.
I can’t help thinking the praise is a little faint, and I think I know why. Brady, in trying to offer examples of publications that meet his notion of broadsheet quality, looks at these as standalone offerings – not as parts of a network. The three sites he named are among the most prolific users of Twitter and Facebook to share their stories, to solicit story ideas, and to spread their (my apologies) brand. All three have a fraction of the staff and overheads of a newspaper and the first two have a bigger reach on Twitter and Facebook than any Irish broadsheet but the Irish Times. As my admittedly beermaths graph below shows, thejournal.ie beats all Irish newspapers hands down.
The other side of that coin, of course, is that if their standards ever fall below what’s expected by readers, they will hear about it early and often through the same channels. While individual journalists are active on social media, Irish papers as institutions have a long way to go to reach that level of interaction with their readerships.
No Irish newspaper is going to be Ireland’s New York Times or Wall Street Journal. But they work in a small market that has a mix of newspapers in terms of size, disposition and demographics. Ireland also has a growing network of (sorry) “new media” businesses.
Hasn’t the stage already been set for Irish papers to experiment online? Doesn’t it make sense that instead of chasing drive-by viewers of single articles that more intense relationships are built with more devoted readers? As Bernie Goldbach pointed out in a post on Friday, isn’t it about time we got Ireland’s local newspapers engaged online? Thomas Crosbie Media and the Independent group both own local papers in addition to their nationals – why aren’t they trying to build a news and advertising ecosystem focused on (and assisted by) readers and advertisers in those communities, and let the knowledge gained in the process have a knock-on benefit to their flagship papers?
Facing the future
I’m not naive enough to think that Irish journalism will figure out a solution to declining newspaper circulations and falling ad revenues at its first attempt, but it has begun to admit the problem and address it openly.
I was cheered and saddened by a Roy Greenslade post last week quoting Hugh Linehan, the online editor of the Irish Times:
“… let me be really frank and lay my cards on the table: I think print will die.”
There is nothing new in “print will die”. It echoes a 2010 statement by Arthur Sulzberger on the New York Times:
“… we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.”
I would miss the notion of a print edition of the Irish Times, but I buy it once a week and nostalgia won’t pay their bills. I do, however, find it heartening that the environment has finally changed enough to allow open contemplation of a world where it no longer exists on paper. It’s also worth pointing out that the seminar where Linehan voiced his opinions on the future of print was also attended by representatives of the Irish Examiner, journal.ie and storyful.
Critics will no doubt point out that talking about journalism won’t save it, but from where do they expect the ideas that will? Acknowledging openly that print is screwed and engaging with your “competition” shows a much healthier side to the Irish journalism debate. As long as nobody gets too carried away – a final word of “I’m not the Messiah” warning from John Paton, as reported in the New York Times:
According to Mr. Paton, his new employees at MediaNews were hoping to discern the silver bullet that would enable them not only to survive, but prosper. Instead, he worked his way through a detailed presentation about outsourcing most operations other than sales and editorial, focusing on the cost side that might include further layoffs, stressing digital sales over print sales with incentives, and using relationships with the community to provide some of the content in their newspapers.
“When I finished, they looked crestfallen,” he said, adding that they seemed to be asking, ‘No secret sauce? No magic program to make us go from print to digital? Anyone can do what you’re talking about.’ “
I won’t yet waste your time with a list of the tasks faced daily by a modern sub-editor apart from saying that Roy’s piddling description of a sub’s duties should explain why he writes a column (for now, at least) rather than attempts to render them readable.
Roy’s commenters mount a spirited and comprehensive defence of their profession, but most miss some important points, including the reason behind the distinction between sub-editors and reporters.
It comes down to division of labour — reporters are better at reporting. They are, by and large, supposed to be specialists — the very notion of a beat is that you walk it daily and know crime, arts, science, whatever, better than anyone else in the building.
Like a beat copper removed from the street to meet centrally-imposed efficiency targets by doing paperwork, the beat reporter tasked with subbing their own copy cannot do their core job — finding and writing stories — as effectively or efficiently.
Sub-editors, by contrast, are generalists — I describe it to my in-laws as having to know a little bit about everything and not a lot about anything — in broad areas such as business, sport, even foreign news. Sub-editors are faster at producing the stories — checking, refining and polishing of text, adding value with pictures, adding hierarchy with page position, headlines and cross-references. Now re-read that sentence and see if you can find anything that can be dispensed with online.
The greatest value of subbing comes from knowing how to make a story fit — not just in a hole on a page but in time and in space. How does this story relate to all the others around it? How does it link to all the stories we have carried this week? How is it connected to all the stories we have ever carried on randy peacocks and petrol pumps?
In an online economy that depends uponlinks, you need the people who have been performing these tasks — this curation — for years. These are not new tricks and old dogs should not be excluded.
Which brings us to the second important point lost in a mere job description. Through the process of fitting — in every sense — of stories and images, the best sub-editors become the collective and genetic memories of their papers. Their filtering of information and images on behalf of their readers becomes second nature and they pass that passion and skill to those that follow them.
As the quantity of that information grows, we dismiss at our peril the value brought to online journalism by that discrimination and that institutional expertise.
As for Mr Greenslade, if the Evening Standard is looking for savings, why not drop his column, keep a sub and have them link to his Guardian blog? Isn’t that the web way to do it?