A world of apps and opportunity
by Peter Preston Posted Wed, Nov 17 2010
There is a sense that the worst may be over, at least for a while. Media advertising around the world has (almost) stopped falling. Television ads are coming back. Online is attracting more volume and revenue. Even poor, despised print has stopped toppling off a cliff. We can begin to glimpse some kind of future again, to mix and match trends and prospects. So what’s around the corner?
Technology will answer that question in its own rich, surging way, of course. Expect iPads and sundry other tablets to create a new world of apps and opportunities. Expect Google TV and competitors to revolutionize the television experience in your living room. Expect Facebook to battle in an increasingly congested market place and Twitter to find ways of making money. Expect smartphones to get smarter, broadband to cover whole cities—and somebody, at last, to resolve the dilemmas of “free” and “paid-for.” And always remember that the iPhone is only four years old. Anything can happen once the lab doors fly open.
There will be media jobs in all these areas. They are great areas of recovery and expansion to look forward to. But more conventional journalism? Ah! Then the crystal ball grows cloudy.
The latest U.K. figures are much in line with statistics elsewhere. During the last decade, Britain has lost between 27 and 33 percent of its working journalists. We have perhaps 40,000 left. The 2010 World Newspaper Future and Change Study reports bleakly that “saving money on staff is amongst the top tactics publishers plan to use to cut costs in the next twelve months.” Not good for your comfort there, perhaps.
But not good for your cup of despair either. Job losses don’t mean the loss of newspapers themselves. In the U.K. last year, eight local papers closed and 19 new papers opened. No major regional paper ceased publication. No national title went under. The casualties—as in America, where the scene is not so different—were mostly papers competing against each other for supremacy in a small commercial patch. The weaker paper closed from Colorado to Lancashire, the stronger paper survived.
There is resilience here to note and salute. Newspapers don’t keel over easily, and history should always have a word in edgeways. Those job losses, for instance. Enders Analysts, one of London’s top media research companies, produced figures showing how, over the last decade or so, newspapers have added 20 percent more sections, supplements and areas of fresh reportage. They were putting up cover prices ahead of inflation, so they felt they had to offer readers more for their money. Add pages and add staff to fill them. Now those pages are shrinking along with the extra staff. We count the job losses, but we don’t always count the words that produce a paper. We don’t see ebbs and flows in the market place, only the slump in copies sold (perhaps, as in the U.S. and Europe) because managers are deliberately dropping distribution in outlying areas where transport costs don’t add up any longer.
Nothing, in short, is as simple as boom or bust. Everything seems to move crabwise, picking up unexpected notions and pushing them forward. Take Politico, for instance, the hugely successful Washington website covering everything that moves on Capitol Hill, employing 75 journalists to do the chronicling. It makes money. The London Daily Mail website has 45 million unique visitors a month. It makes money, too. You may not like its stress on celebrity gossip or its reliance on Matt Drudge to drum up more custom—but like Politico, it focuses on one or two selling points and reels readers in at a rate to turn Arianna Huffington green with envy. The Wall Street Journal online and the Financial Times, coin many digital dollars from finance itself.
There are lessons emerging from the mists of confusion, then. They counsel that we were all too panicky about the imminent demise of print. Papers like the London Daily Mail see print as their long-term future. Politico needs a print version for its double whammy. But can a general interest daily paper make electronic profits by transferring that general coverage online, seeking to keep everything bar the means of delivery much the same? You’d have to be very dubious about that proposition. If the punter is asked to pay, he’ll need something special to make him reach for his credit card, something particular to make him leap over pay walls.
See? The answers, as they emerge, are various themselves—as various as the pay walls slowly being built from New York to London’s East End. There is no Holy Grail. Probably there’s no simple revenue stream that will make things the way they were. But there are beginning to be success stories to learn from: there is thinking time as the downward plunge ends. We still can’t be sure how things will turn out, but at least we know we’re still here. And now most of us can expect to be around in a year or three to look out along the yellow brick road journalists love: the one that leads to the land of What Happens Next.