Come the Revolution



Six months ago on these pages, I wrote a long piece entitled Telegraph Road, documenting the short history of the news and the dawn of the digital revolution.
In it, I trawled over the history of the newspaper and discussed numerous possibilities for the future of such, and journalism at large, in the new media world.

While many still believe in the long term survivability of the newspaper, events this past week can only have fuelled the beliefs of those thinkers who are predicting a brave new world in print journalism.

Guardian News and Media bosses have told journalists that digital is now their main priority, or at least as reported in the Press Gazette.

The historic shift will see The Guardian become a “digital-first” organisation, meaning ‘investment and effort is to be focused on digital rather than print’.

According to the report, digital currently contributes around £35m to £40m a year out of Guardian News and Media’s £221m turnover (2009/2010 figures).

It is understood that GNM wants to double that contribution in the next five years. According to PG, last year GNM made an operating loss of £37.8m.

Print currently contributes the majority of GNM’s income, but sales have been declining sharply: last month circulation of The Guardian dropped 12.5 per cent year on year to 262,937 whereas The Observer was down 13.9 per cent to 293,053.

Digital revenue and readership is growing. In April, attracted 2.4m unique users a day according to ABC, up 31 per cent year on year.

While print is said to remain “critical” to GNM, the new strategy will see more investment in digital initiatives, such as a new US operation and mobile.

Editor Alan Rusbridger is quoted as saying: “Every newspaper is on a journey into some kind of digital future. That doesn’t mean getting out of print, but it does require a greater focus of attention, imagination and resource on the various forms that digital future is likely to take.”

The situation is of course not unique to the Guardian but to just about every printed newspaper and ‘traditional’ media outlet across the globe.

While the digital revolution and impact of the internet has had an effect on every business in Britain – look at the High Street for example – the media world has seen it as a bit of a curate’s egg.

Photographers have certainly benefitted from the revolution – their costs have been sharply cut by the sunset of film and transparencies – and images from sporting events can be transmitted across the globe in a fraction of a second.

[I spent more than one summer acting as a press runner for my photographer father from major sporting events 20 years ago carrying film to be developed in the ubiquitous black canisters back to darkrooms].

For journalists, while the instantaneous of the web has been a major boon to ‘the news’ itself, which, by its very etymology, always takes the fastest available conduit to the public consciousness, the gain is less obvious. (The ‘news’ is a bit like water – it always takes its swiftest route to the consumer, downhill).

In the new media torrent, some reckon/fear that newspapers COULD be left miles behind by the new techno.

Some surmise that anything which is a day old, never mind a week old, counts for little these days. A little like a panting Greek messenger arriving, carrying news of the Persian defeat at Marathon, only to find the Athenians have just installed cable.

Compared to some lickety-split techno and blogs, which allows press releases to be published worldwide within seconds of them being received by the journo/blogger,  the ‘traditional’ press [in terms of ‘the news’ certainly] is in danger of becoming the wheezy -boy in the 100 metre dash alongside the Usain Bolt of news delivery.

Where the traditional press scores handsomely though, is in its broad range of experts, and the sheer depth of its coverage which can make blogs and webpages look like fly-posters on the mansion of knowledge. Magazines are a different entity all together of course.

But is it just newspapers which might suffer? Perhaps it might be the new media outlets themselves?

The key question of course in the new age is: ''Where is the money going to come from?'

Journalism is a relatively poorly paid profession, both in print and online, in the provinces as it is.

Years ago as a naive cub reporter in Bradford, to me editorial was king, and the editor the king [or queen] of the newspaper.

Advertising revenue though is of course the main revenue source – the cover price of many ‘paid for’ newspapers is  usually a small percentage of such (and in the case of  ’free’ newspapers a zero factor).

Advertising managers [usually] have as much clout as the editor, if not more so; but then newspapers are ‘bought to be read’, (a slogan of some). Few people buy a paper solely to see if their favourite leather-seated high-back chair has gone up in price.

Ad revenues in the US  as a benchmark (see my previous article) have been falling historically for a long time, and the great worry universally is that while the digital revolution is seeing some print advertisers migrate to the new format, it has been a struggle to match earlier levels.

While there is some hope for improvement, a key factor will remain the number of outlets (tv, radio, internet, broadband, print, satellite and the rest of ‘the media’ club) seeking to attract a finite amount of all important advertising revenue.

Some fear, in the 21st C,  too little butter is being spread over too much toast. And this can only have an impact on already Dickensian-like salaries.

To some, this might all sound like scaremongering.

But for many journalists, the equivalent of Paul Revere’s ‘midnight ride’ announcing the digital revolution has not only occurred, but many are racing to keep up with the horsetails of the already mercurial change.  Many don’t need the digital revolution to tell them the digital revolution is here.

For some, including ironically the watching general public, seeing journalists scurry, for once along with the rest of society, in the face of the new industrial steam roller, it might also seem to be the biggest wild-goose chase in which there is no golden pot at the end of the rainbow.

Journalism will survive, but if the ad revenues don’t appear/continue, and ‘paywalls’ fail, paid-for journalists might not. And in the meantime, in the salmon leap of modernity, thousands of media students are still falling overthemselves to vie for internships.

In the already cut-throat barber’s shop of the media world, in which survivability will increasingly become key, it could be a close shave.  
But it's an important concept. Imagine if a writer of the magnitude of Charles Dickens, who seemingly never stopped writing, had access to the internet and the social networks. Dickens drew a reasonable crowd at his church hall readings and oratories in Victorian England.
Given the prospect of Kindles, GoogleSites/Pages and the so-called Web 2.0 social interaction technology existing in the 1800s, it's reasonable to presume there would have been no stopping him.
But then, perhaps each genius is only the product of his particular time and place.

On that thought, it’s perhaps fitting that the (fictitious) Sweeney Todd lived on Fleet Street.

With web users seemingly unwilling to pay for news online, and against a backdrop of uncertain ad revenues streams, Sweeney's accomplices, Mrs Lovett and Tobais Ragg, waiting in the downstairs slurry room, might have some 'ready-made content' yet, if online readers/advertisers decide to make mincemeat of the new media world.
In trying to keep up with the voracious demands of the contemporaneousness of 'the news' , has journalism (or is it about to) cut it's own throat? Perhaps not.
But then again, in the fairest democracy in the world, in the absence of a written constitution (and a First Amendment), what price freedom of speech?
Fresh off-the-press pies anyone?
* One future hope, however compact and bijou, might lay in hyper-local blogs. Fast news targeted at a specific market but with worldwide reach.


* 'Freemiums' are proving to be a popular move in the world of Web 2.0 i.e. the social/interactive web.  They offer a free basic service, (a giveaway mag, say) supported by advertising for e.g., and then only charge for an associated add on service i.e. a niche mag or other content.