Dominic Ponsford – the future of the media

 

How are we going to make journalism pay? By saying to advertisers that we can help them reach a mass audience online, an elite audience in print, and, get to interact with readers at events

  • Despite the recession, the media has remained profitable, and is now poised to bounce back
  • There are opportunities for micro publishing, some examples of which are already making money
  • There are signs that even traditional local newspapers are bouncing back

A year ago, the media seemed to be facing an apocalypse.  Johnston Press’s shares went down to about 12p and Trinity Mirror’s to 15p – that from companies that used to have share prices in the region of £5.  To those who invested in journalism, it seemed like the end.  There were big redundancies and closures of papers. Looking today, media share prices are nowhere near where they were – the share price of the above companies is now above £1.  That means that the worst of the crisis is over and people are starting to launch new products.

Press Gazette (PG) has gone into administration once, closed twice and gone from weekly to monthly – so we are not a shining example of a media brand that has triumphed.  We have survived, however, when everyone had written us off – and there are some lessons in how we did it.

Like most B2B magazines, the bulk of our income used to come from jobs ads.  The internet did for that, as did holdthefrontpage.com, which is jointly owned by Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe –  all banned their editors from using PG.

Last April, Progressive Media bought PG and relaunched us in monthly format.  We are now continuing with our strategy – a premium magazine, and breaking news online.  Subs are £90 a year – the student rate is £40 a year.

The strength of PG is its brand – that may be the only reason we survive.  To keep the PG brand alive we have worked hard to be part of the online community.  When I joined, we had a gated website, but progressively we came to seem less and less relevant. All our stories were broken by free-to-view competitors.  Not having a serious web site is not an option, because you become irrelevant.  We attract about 100,000 unique users to our website, which is not enough to generate much from advertising, but they do keep the brand strong.  The future for us will be leveraging the brand in new ways, with things like events, conferences, awards, even maybe contract publishing.  Paywalls may work for premium features.

On the churnalism debate, the Nick Davies book is great.  But, it is a history book.  To rage against churnalism is like raging against the weather.  I am not scared to say that most of what I do is churnalism.  Journalists are outnumbered by press officers, bombarding us with stuff.  A news organisation has to be part of that conversation. You have to be a canny churnalist, though.  Use blogs to point readers to information, take information from press officers, but use your skills to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Add value by your insight and link to other information.  Use blogging tools.

Don’t waste time rewriting stories – just link to people who have done a story well.  If you can do all that, and be a new modern journalist, you can still make the time to do the real stories, and keep up with everything else.

How are we going to make journalism pay? By saying to advertisers, that we can help them reach a mass audience online, an elite audience in print, and interact with readers at events. We promise advertisers that we will push their brands into our reader’s computers with our daily email.  Email is going to be a really important way of pushing news.  Readers are either time-poor or lazy.

I am optimistic about the future of journalism, but I don’t think that we will ever get back to the staffing levels of yesterday.  Why? Because there are now a lot more journalists covering our beat – on holdthefrontpage, journalism.co.uk, Media Guardian, not to mention bloggers.  PG won’t dominate, but we can take a leading role.

What of ‘the PLC bloodsuckers thesis’?  Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press have hastened the decline of local papers by seeking unrealistic profit margins.  But, that does not explain everything.  The last regional ABCs showed that even the best publishers, like Cumberland Newspapers – an enlightened family-run newspaper group – had lost 9% of their sales. There is something wider going on.

There are a lot of positive small niche publishers.  London-se1.co.uk, and chiswickw4.com, for example.  They are one-man bands that show you can have a sustainable future, doing ultra-local publishing.  Figures from the USA show that if you have a community of 40,000 people, with one journalist, they reckon you can make a business with a turnover of $100,000 pa – more than most journalists make.  And most of these business haven’t even begun to monetise what they do, because don’t generally have much commercial experience.

 It’s worth remembering too, that hardly any paid-for local papers have closed.  The Long Eaton Advertiser is about the only one.  The UK has not lost a national newspaper since Today and Sunday Business.  And every big regional newspaper and B2B publisher has stayed in profit, unlike the banks or the car industry.

Once the economy starts to bounce back, we will find that the structural change has not been that bad.  Here is an upbeat story this week, for example.  Champion media group in Merseyside, this week launched Crosby and Lytham Advertiser with a circulation of 30,000.  Last year they launched the Aintree Champion.  Free papers have suffered in the recession, but people are still opening them.

Finally, the Burton Trader, was closed a year ago by Trinity Mirror.  It was relauched this year by Chris Clarke, who runs a kitchen sales business in the town.  When the paper closed, he lost one third of the footfall through his shop.  The free weekly was very effective for him.  When it closed, he decided to reopen it.

 

Dominic Ponsford has been editor of Press Gazette for three years. He began his journalism career in the regional press working as district reporter for the Battle Observer and then as senior reporter/feature writer for the Evening Advertiser in Swindon. He is also journalist in residence at Kingston University

About the Author

www.tim-dawson.com