Here are some words of wisdom from John Meehan, former editor of the Hull Daily Mail (LSE: DMGT), in an InPublishing article, Sustaining community journalism in the regions.
“The industry cannot be focused predominantly on print. The platform is not important – the content is…
Regional media businesses have spent years agonising over ‘the internet’. What do we put on it? Who does it? How do we make money on it?
All are valid questions, but the constant questioning and lurches of direction are paralysing the industry. It is fiddling while Rome burns.
I suggest we should simply accept that digital media is now all-pervasive and must be embraced totally, in newsrooms and in advertising sales departments…
I am astonished by the scarcity of regional media activity on tablets. Lately, I have become convinced that newspapers will migrate in significant proportion to mobile devices.
The iPad is a game-changer for media and the Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) device and the multitude of copy-cats will continue to improve in experience and functionality, while reducing in price.
I believe the printed newspaper will survive, but I suspect 10-15 years from now, more people will read tablet equivalents.
Crucially, it is accepted that people will pay for content on tablets and e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle.
Sustaining journalism will require the public to pay for it and for the industry to stop pandering to the digital freeloaders. Shouldn’t we begin to occupy this territory?”
Meehan spent 14 years as an editor with Northcliffe Media before departing in July. He is now running his own communications consultancy.
“I remain hugely passionate about local and regional journalism,” he writes. But he is talking, note, about journalism – not printed newspapers as such. He continues:
“Let’s integrate print and digital, but it must be done intelligently. Throwing all of our print content on to the web – or even the best of it – is total madness.
It’s simply cannibalising unnecessarily our already under-pressure print sales and readership.
But the other extreme – focusing almost exclusively on the paper because it’s what pays the rent now – is a road to nowhere.
At best, that will achieve greater longevity for the printed product, but it will not maintain or grow audience, or sustain journalism.”
I’m not so certain he’s right about cannibalisation. Withholding content from the web is, in my view, counter-productive. But his main message, about the centrality of online journalism, is bang on the money. As is his belief in the coming dominance of tablets.
Towards the end of his wide-ranging article, he turns to the problem caused by the regulatory barrier that is preventing some sensible business deals among regional newspaper publishers. He writes:
“The recent decision to effectively scupper the sale by Northcliffe Media of newspapers in Kent to the Kent Messenger Group was a disgrace.
Did the industry kick up enough of a fuss about it? Did the NUJ protest? I believe we have to be much more proactive and purposeful in fighting for a fair deal for an industry that employs thousands of skilled workers.”
Well, I’m with Meehan in spirit on that one, as I wrote earlier this month. But how much fuss do we have to create?
The decision has been criticised in the Lords by Lord (Guy) Black (here), to the Leveson inquiry by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (here), in a major lecture by the former regional editor Neil Fowler (here), and in a public statement by another publisher, Trinity Mirror (LSE: TNI) (here).
Is no-one listening? Does no-one care? How many times do we have to say that this was a wrong-headed ruling by the Office of Fair Trading?
The predictable result has been an announcement by the ailing KM group that it is going to axe “up to 10” journalists’ jobs. I readily concede that redundancies would have occurred even if the company had been allowed to acquire the seven titles from Northcliffe.
I also believe that some of those papers would have vanished anyway, due to merging of titles. And it is probably true that the deal would not have done much more than delayed inevitable closure.
That, however, goes back to Meehan’s essential point. We cannot hope to see investment – and, most importantly, innovation and invention – in digital journalism while a cash-strapped industry scrabbles around trying to save itself from collapse.
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.