Print may be dying but don't switch off the life support for newspapers... yet

Paul Connew is a media commentator and broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror, and co-author of After Leveson.

Continuing our series of extracts from upcoming book Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print?, The Drum blogger and former national newspaper editor Paul Connew insists real journalism will endure – even if newspapers themselves don't.

Is print dying? A no-brainer question… Ultimately, the answer is YES. But print newspapers, like most living, breathing entities are fighting to survive and the moment of death is unpredictable. Maybe a better analogy is to view Britain’s national and local newspaper industry as a patient in intensive care, on life support, but with earnest commercial research technicians locked in the search for a cure while uber-enthusiastic high priests of the digital church hover outside the door, preparing to pronounce the last rites.

Their day will come, but how soon is another question, one that has already proved the more prematurely damning prophets of the digital age wrong. Optimists argue the death of newspapers was also predicted with the emergence of the mass TV age. Earlier still, some forecast the first crackles of radio waves heralded their demise.

But this time the pessimists have a stronger case in arguing the impact of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, BuzzFeed, Vice, BBC Online, Apple’s phone and iPad, Quartz, Snapchat, Instagram et al, pose a vastly greater existential threat to the future of print newspapers as UK readers have devoured, loved (or loathed) them for generations.

The Reuters Institute’s 2016 Digital News Report strikes an ominous tone. Few of Britain’s publishing execs would argue with the opening sentence of the Reuters Report’s UK section: "Over the last year the newspaper sector has been hit hard by a sharp fall in print advertising, by the growth of ad-blockers and by problems of monetising content on mobile devices."

Reuters reports the Guardian’s losses mounting to almost £50m a year with plans to cut 20% of its cost base, and the sobering statistic that while Mail Online might be the world’s most visited English language website, it missed revenue targets by £7m and remains loss-making.

Mail Online’s digital advertising growth has reached an impressive £44m, but has to be set against the Mail’s print advertising figure of £80m. Predictions Mail Online (with 800 journalists on board) would soon produce ad revenues to match those of the print ‘mothership’ now more resemble a distant digital star. In May, DMGT even had to issue a warning to investors after its newspaper division reported a 29 per cent fall in profits, triggering a 13% nosedive in the share price. The profit slump was largely the result of a six-month 13% decline in print ad revenues at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Metro. With circulation figures inevitably declining too, good reason to fear worse is on the horizon.

On September 29, 2016, DMGT announced it was increasing cost-cutting plans from £15m to £50m with 400 jobs to be cut across the group. The next day Trinity Mirror confirmed it is targeting a further £20m in cuts. It spectacularly symbolised the scale of the crisis confronting the industry.

Print advertising in the UK fell by £112m in 2015 alone, according to Enders Analysis. That’s the equivalent of half Fleet Street’s profits, or the total wage bills of the Times, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph combined. Cue even more swingeing job cuts.

Who can survive the cliff fall?

"It’s time to recognise the whole UK newspaper industry is heading for a cliff fall, that tipping point when there is no hope of a reversal of fortune." The words of City University professor and former Mirror editor, Roy Greenslade in his Media Guardian blog in May 2016. Like Roy, I’ve long been resigned to the future being digital, although we’ve begged to differ on how soon that day will come, and I’ve been the more optimistic.

A media student recently asked me how many national titles I expected to still be around in 10 years’ time. Tough question. My best guess response: The Mail titles, yes; the Times and the Sun too (but that could depend on Rupert still being around); the Mirror, hopefully; the Telegraph, only possibly (but probably not under the Barclays’ stewardship). I doubt the Express stable will be around, and the Guardian will have joined the Independent in an online-only form.

The regional and local paper landscape will continue to contract heavily and I tend to agree with another Greenslade contention, that cutbacks in this sector all too often produce ‘an end result that looks like a paper, but the content lacks any real value. It’s not journalism. It’s pointless material without any public benefit’. Maybe less a tipping point more a ‘perfect storm’ when falling circulation and advertising figures and unsustainable print, transport and marketing costs collide. But can countless job cuts and remote subbing hubs prove anything but self-destructive?

Wearing my PR consultant hat, I’ve ceased to be amazed how these days you can send out a press release, complete with headline, and it appears verbatim, headline and all, across a string of local papers. In a slightly anarchic, experimental moment, I once even included a couple of spelling errors in a headline and the opening paragraph. Yes, you’ve guessed, at least five titles failed to spot the deliberate mistake! Proof, perhaps, of Nick Davies’s scenario a few years ago in his book Flat Earth News where he warned of ‘churnalism’ and ‘PR-generated oven-ready copy’.

The Generation Game

"Dad, you’ve already read the news online, so why are you sitting there reading out-of-date, dead tree newspapers?" A breakfast table question from my 16 year-old son, who’s genuinely interested in news as well as ecology, but never picks up a newspaper and consumes his newsfeed via a variety of hand-held, cyber sources. The answer, son, is there is still something special, sentimental and tactile about flicking through those pages over the muesli and coffee, taking it, rather than the smartphone, to the loo to read, and even on the commuter train into London, if I do admittedly update constantly on my phone. The look of bemusement and plain ‘sad dad’ pity on his face spoke for a generation.

Even before the digital revolution, the arrival of the mobile phone and the Twittersphere, newspapers were struggling to pin down the elusive butterfly of young readers. A snapshot of the Reuters UK study exposes how much bigger the challenge now is as the digital revolution unfolds at a breathtaking pace. Just one example: 28% of 18-24 year olds now list social media as their main source of news, outreaching TV for the first time and far outstripping newspapers. But only around 10% in the English-speaking world support the notion of paying for online news, according to Reuters and other research studies. Whether or not that is reversible constitutes a huge challenge for news publishers in search of a digital future.

Then there are figures suggesting 50% of 18-24 year olds are quite content to have their ‘tailored’ newsfeed to their apps decided by an algorithm rather than a human editor – even a digital convert like me struggles to get his head round that one. First the robot news editor/copytaster, then the robot reporter? Cue mirth over August’s story of how Facebook fired its human trending team in favour of algorithm-only and promptly pumped out one bogus, libellous celebrity story and a porn video stunt about a man masturbating with a McDonald’s chicken sandwich!

But 9 September 2016 marked a far more serious and sinister show of Facebook’s power, with its run-in with Norway's biggest newspaper and that nation’s prime minister over the censoring, whether by alogorithm or diktat, of the world-famous, iconic Vietnam war napalm girl photo. Although, amid a global firestorm of protest and derision, Facebook eventually backed down, it underscored the digital behemoth’s dominant position in the 21st century media landscape. It also, for me, finally put paid to Mark Zuckerberg’s claim he isn’t effectively the world’s most powerful editor and publisher but merely a ‘platform’ provider.

Meanwhile ad-blocking figures are steadily rising, particularly among the young, adding to publishers’ elusive quest for the holy grail of an effective, ad-funded online business model. Trinity Mirror, for example, is adding just 13p of digital advertising for every £1 of print ad revenue it loses.

All is not lost, buckle up for the ride!

But all isn’t total doom and gloom. Nearly 7 million people still regularly buy UK daily and Sunday papers, albeit down from 13 million a decade ago. The bulk are much older than the coveted 18-24 bracket, but that’s still enough to ensure some print titles will survive the next decade or so. What their sales figures, business models and journalistic head counts will be by then, is the make-or-break issue.

Vice founder Shane Smith, who began in print publishing, ruffled TV industry figures in August 2016 with an aggressive, expletive-laden MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival. On one point I believe he was right: debunking the notion young people aren’t interested in news, Smith argued in effect it was really all about ‘how you deliver it, stupid. Duh!’

Let’s not forget either UK newspapers still tend to set the agenda for mainstream TV and radio as well as triggering the social media debate, whether of the intelligent and thought-provoking variety or the barking mad troll tendency. Cliche or not, content is increasingly king in the global digisphere. Reality dictates newspapers are going to have to forge closer relationships with the likes of Facebook and Google with their voracious appetite for content. With the right financial deals and with shared platforms to provide news creators with great advertising opportunities, it could yet toss a digital lifebelt to a drowning industry.

It’s undoubtedly true the newspaper business was historically complacent and slow to wake up to the internet age and lacked visionaries to match the Zuckerbergs, Jobs and Gates of this brave new world. If we had, he, or she, would now be as revered as Gutenberg, Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde.

I began this article comparing the newspaper business to a patient on life support. Maybe an analogy for the future would be that of a space traveller – or, rather, a cyberspace traveller – buckling into his seat, preparing for a journey into the great unknown, aware it will be one helluva of a bumpy ride but fascinating all the same. Above all, whatever the final destiny of newspapers in the evolving digital galaxy, I’m convinced of one thing: Real journalism WILL survive the trip.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and a former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror.

This is an extract from Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, and published by Abramis on 23 January at £19.95. Readers of The Drum can order copies at a special pre-publication discounted price of £15 from Richard@abramis.co.uk

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Paul Connew

Freelance PR and Media Commentator/Adviser, broadcaster, co-author, 'After Leveson' and former national newspaper editor and member of the Society of Editors and judge of British Press Awards and Royal Television Society Awards

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