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A New News for the Future is Emerging

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Recently, my name popped up on Google Alerts, a rare event these days. The reason was that Editor & Publisher columnist John Newby had been kind enough to recall my observation made 15 years ago, “How do you acquire a small local newspaper? Buy a large one and wait five years.” It was funny once, but some of us don’t have memories as good as John’s.

Looking back, 2005 turned out to be the pivotal year for the evolution of news:

  • Publishers ceased paying ludicrous sums to acquire already declining titles.
  • It was the year between the launch of Facebook and the launch of Twitter.
  • Newspapers began to lose their influence over politicians.
  • Citizens began to discover “alternative facts.”
  • Social media refused to acknowledge they were publishers.
  • To avoid compensating publishers and enable the bile, social media companies “distributed.”
  • We began to realize we were no longer in charge.

With 40 years of media experience as an analyst, executive and strategist, I fondly remember that sensation of the presses starting to rumble before briefly looking at the clock. In those days, deadlines were everything. Long-term thinking was next week. In 1994, I co-wrote “Online Electronic Publishing…Trends and Opportunities” for the World Association of Newspapers (now the World Association of News Publishers). In 2000, I was managing the first media company in the U.K. to adopt Google. But by 2004, I was counselling the World Newspaper Congress—intoxicated by the lure of ever larger audiences and their consequential advertising potential—that these new friends were shifting from subordinate to friend to frenemy. Facebook and Twitter soon joined in.

Today’s digital ecosystem could not be more complex. At one time, publishers expected to pay only the agencies a 10 to 15 percent “commission.” Now, a raft of unregulated intermediaries gobble-up over half of the advertisers’ investment on top of commission to their agency.

Digital is dominated by five or six entities whose collective value is equivalent to that of Germany. eCommerce now accounts for a quarter of all retail sales. This year, Amazon will succeed Walmart as the world’s biggest retailer, unhampered by shop costs, commercial transparency, and tax conformance. It has not been lost on the rest of the world that all of these companies are American.

In the U.S., media is largely deregulated. Television provides the widest range of political and other perspectives. The national press tends to be more liberal in outlook. While audiences are declining, they all appear to be in a sustainable position.

 In the U.K., television is heavily regulated, with the PBS BBC pre-eminent and impartial. However, the national press is largely owned by conservative supporters. Sadly, our current government’s controlling instincts have resulted in the BBC being bullied more than ever before.

For the press, the strong, patriarchal national players are in good shape. But many of the smaller titles struggle. Staff are being shed. Titles are closing. One major U.K. publisher, Johnston Press, has gone bust only to be resold twice, for scrap. Other lesser, but more deserving publishers have simply disappeared. This tsunami is rising.

But a cohort of refreshing new media are emerging. Recently, I undertook a brief study of the media scene in Edinburgh, Scotland, a city similar in size and character to Kansas City. The study found:

  • No local or indigenous Scottish television channels.
  • Around 12 to 15 indigenous and national radio stations.
  • Fifteen daily newspapers, largely London-based.
  • Around a dozen substantial magazines covering politics, law, finance, and the arts.
  • More than a dozen community news services.
  • Forty-five community councils providing newsletters and websites of varying quality.
  • Possibly 20 to 30 hyperlocal brands catering for niche interest groups.

As we move forward, here is one possible scenario that may help our industry as a whole. Governments claim to be supportive of a revitalization of quality journalism, but this must not be in direct funding for individual publishers, therefore:

  • There needs to be a debate/research about what society needs and wants from its news, in both conceptual and material forms. This must involve all threads of society, including the growing mass of deprived and excluded.
  • One area where governments can provide financial and structural support is in the creation of a mechanism that underpins the strategic and operational means of building this new news concept.
  • One vision of this concept is the creation of a two-tier structure: a board comprising representatives of the social elements that will most benefit from a stronger media presence; and a body to drive this revolution in New News, in terms of revenue generation, training, access to leading-edge technology, and representation to stakeholders.

Which leads me back to John Newby. Having not met John since that conference in 2005, I only needed to read the name of his weekly column, “Building Main Street—not Wall Street” to know we remain on the same wavelength.

I, for one, cannot recall a time in my 64 years when we faced so many challenges to our daily life. Many of these are encouraging this new rise in political extremism. A strong independent Fourth Estate is essential, but while many publishers can barely survive, society cannot afford for the media to fail.

Jim Chisholm has advised news publishers and related organizations in more than 50 countries, including in North America. These days, he resides in Scotland and can be contacted at jim@jimchisholm.net.

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