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Read All About It… While You Still Can April 17, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

“There is no such thing as an original thought,” is a quotation I can’t find attributed in any reference book, nor even on the interweb. But just to confirm  the wisdom of its author, this latest scribble is lifted almost entirely from newspapers and magazines. Which in a sense is a Good Thing, because according to an item in last Saturday’s Guardian, news media in printed form is definitely buggered.

Reporter Mark Sweeney revealed that the Yorkshire Post, once  the jewel in the crown of regional newspaper conglomerate, Johnston Press, is replacing its editor with a ‘director’. The same fate recently befell the stewardship of the Lancashire Evening Post, whilst up at The Scotsman the editor-in-chief’s role was eradicated. Perhaps needless to say, the new CEO at Johnstons is a man with no prior experience in print media, Ashley Highfield, whose career thus far embraced senior roles at Microsoft and BBC Digital. And in the same story, Sweeney listed woeful circulation and job losses right across the regional newspaper landscape.

As it happens, I have friends who work elsewhere in the Johnston empire and know anecdotally that they are cruel masters who, like Trinity-Mirror and many other newspaper owners try to maintain profitability – or at least manage decline – in an industry hemorrhaging both advertising and circulation revenue in an internet age, by simply if ruthlessly cutting costs, and that means jobs.

This is happening nationally too, of course: The Guardian incomprehensibly slashes its print media resources in favour of free online content  (currently costing it £90,000 a day), whilst the Telegraph pursues a similar strategy by sacking many of its reporters and (very obviously) most of its sub-editors in an effort to keep its owners, the weird old Barclay brothers, in private islands and fancy hotels.

And yet in a masterpiece of mistiming, the very next day the Sunday Times magazine’s cover story offered a lengthy, well-researched tale of how local newspapers are fighting back, if not always weathering the storm. Tim Rayment reported on several ‘papers who by assiduously understanding and covering their local patch still rock political boats and vested interests and in so doing keep their readerships, albeit often in concert with paid-for apps delivering content to tablets and smartphones. But looking to America where apparently almost a quarter of consumers use mobile devices to get their news, Rayment asked, “Who will pay for the journalism… when for every $1 won from online advertising last year, (newspapers) lost $10 in print ads?”

Trinity-Mirror’s brutal CEO, Sly Bailey, the Barclay Brothers and Guardian editor (and evident print-hater) Alan Rusbridger seems to think that this doesn’t matter, but as Rayment explained – and as I know from my own editorship of the local ‘paper here in Wales – the newsgathering abilities of national newspapers, never mind broadcast media such as “the BBC’s Today programme ­– every politician’s morning listening – would stop” if the regional and local newspaper hacks weren’t around to feed them stories. What would they do instead – rely on lazy, ill-informed and above all opinionated bloggers? Perish the thought, and if nothing else this article offered significant evidence that those newspaper owners who do invest in their reporting activities are the ones in the best health.

Still with the Guardian and the Sunday Times, and still on print’n’paper, the tax affairs of dear old Amazon.com were recently digested from both titles in its unique if not always entirely dispassionate manner by The Week. It seems that on a stonking £3.3bn of UK sales last year, the Luxembourg-based Amazon paid no corporation tax here, and of course it also uses the low-tax Channel Islands as a conduit for its mail-order sales to Britain. Furthermore, because unlike the printed variety, VAT at 20% is applied to eBooks – “which now account for a lucrative one-fifth of the £1.9bn UK book market,” whereas in the Channel Islands it’s a piffling 3.5%. We are told that our millionaire chancellor is looking into the tax avoidance schemes employed by many big retailers such as Amazon, and The Week asks if “Amazon’s tax avoidance (could) kill off Britain’s bookshops?”

With local bookshops closing at the rate of almost two a week, the total down 26%  since 2006, the answer may well be ‘yes’. Of course I know that some of my friends won’t give a fig if they’re all gone in a couple of years, along with daily deliveries by the Royal Mail who, with supreme irony and commercial myopia, didn’t get the original delivery contract with Amazon because they couldn’t match the prices of the same private companies who use Royal Mail posties to walk their packages to our doors! Which signals a segue into the Royal Mail raising its prices by 39% as a prelude to being partially priviaised next year, as recently announced by its new boss, Moya Green. (The £500,000 a year Ms Green was parachuted in from the Canadian Post Office where she managed to sack a third of its workforce, reduced delivery services by 27% and increased charges by 34% – mail volumes subsequently dropping by 20-30%).

Which is where I’ll haul this juggernaut to a halt. Clearly we are seeing the not-so-slow death of print media. I hope it won’t be in my lifetime, but in saying so I don’t believe that I’m a Luddite just because I won’t spend a few hundred quid on an iPad and further degrade my eyesight doing all my reading via the internet. If, or rather when humans are finally unable to buy and read printed newspapers, magazines and books, I hope I’ll be long dead but if the crude economic imperatives are ultimately the only ones that matter, does anyone – industrialist, economist or politician really know what impact it will have on jobs, democracy and consequently the material and cultural well-being of countries where they once held sway?

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My Award-Winning Blog Joy April 3, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics, That's Entertainment.

For my sins, once a month I physically distribute to shops, libraries, pubs and cafes the free local listings magazine for which I am, ahem, film critic. I used to kid myself that the few quid I get paid for this were adequate compensation for the brilliant (if unpaid) reviews of movies I pay good money to go and see, but with unleaded at 150p a litre and my big, fat Citruin proving just about the thirstiest car I’ve ever owned, that’s become a bit of a joke. Still, when the weather’s nice it’s a joy to swoop through the Marches and drop off bundles of mags to folk who are generally pleased to see it and have a brief chat, even if my day’s work yields about tuppence profit. And of course I can boast to any of my  industry peers who’ll listen that unlike them with their media studies degree and secretaries called Felicity, I’m experienced in every part of the publishing process.

Last month on my rounds I was striding through one small town when I saw in its sole remaining butchers a handwritten sign proclaiming its ‘Award Winning Sausages’. Now me, I like a nice sausage from time to time so I went in, bought half a pound of pork’n’leek bangers, then idly enquired as to who’d made the award. “Local chamber of trade,” came the guileless answer. But having left the shop, I reflected on the implausible nature of a local honour given to an enterprise that essentially had no competition. And then as I blew a few hundred thousand hydrocarbons into the air firing up the mighty Citruin, on the more general absurdity of what I shall christen the ‘awards culture’.

You can’t have escaped noticing that every other company these days trumpets their wares with some kind of award. Waste a few minutes of your precious life with Mr Google and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of portentously bestowed Texas chili recipes, metric socket sets, computer monitoring software, continental lagers, lingerie shops and, for all I know bomb-making kits and DIY pornstar manuals, any real value they obtain from such accolades surely debased by their sheer numbers?

So personally I pay little or no attention to such trumped-up trifles – unless sausages are involved of course – so I wonder if anyone else does? Years ago, when I was editing and publishing magazines, I did in fact inaugurate a trio of fatuous accolades handed out by the motorcycle magazines I then helmed. With the exception of the International Bike of the Year which genuinely sought the opinions of bike hacks across the globe, the others were determined by my colleagues and staff and geared very much to the manufacturer who the advertising staff reckoned would pay the most for double page spread celebrating their triumph. Or even their Triumph.

I can only assume such cynical maneuvering lies behind most or all of the fatuous honours granted to estate agents, call centre operators and tyre fitters, and also assume that you, too, will regard them with appropriate scepticism. Except of course the Teresa May Digital Halfwits’ Award for Blog of the Month which, by an extraordinary coincidence was most recently won by Mark’s Sparks Will Fly. Let’s see if my numbers, if not my number will be up as a result of this… and the vagaries of Search Engine optimisation?

Meantime some addenda to a few of my much beaten drums.

PADDY – 2 , TESCO – 0         Although the Scottish parliament jettisoned a similar proposal in back in January, Northern Ireland is to increase business rates for retail properties valued at £500,000 or more by 15% which will apparently raise £5million which will be used to reduce rates on struggling smaller shops. Naturally Tesco, Sainsburys et al whined furiously about this, and naturally I think it’s a topping wheeze which, given that NI is part of the UK, might be seen as a more hopeful sign that our wonderful government is finally willing to consider rebalancing the retail landscape than any gimmicky posturing by the likes of Mary ‘Big Knickers’ Portas.

A TOWN WITHOUT MALICE ?         If so, it might just possibly have some benefits for our own little town. My regular reader may recall that we recently lost our major employer, a specialist foundry that put too many eggs in an automotive industry basket and hadn’t used their profits to re-tool for when the car makers inevitably adopted new designs and left them with nowhere else to go. Not uncoincidentally, the local HSBC bank followed soon after and I recently spent a few hours at a public ‘Town Regeneration Meeting’ designed to try and stop the rot. But I’m afraid needless to say it was largely a talking shop in which local councilors, our two MPs (UK and Welsh) and lots of consultants in Next casualwear talked shop and made worthily vacuous appeals for we citizens to “regain a sense of local pride” and “get involved”. Quite in what wasn’t made clear, except perhaps in mastering PowerPoint presentations and manning charity shops, but I rather rashly put my name down as a potential volunteer and shall keep you posted.

CHANNELING TAX AVOIDANCE        And then there was George Osborne announcing in his recent budget that he’s plugging the VAT loophole exploited by major online retailers like Amazon, Dixons and fleaBay whereby they can avoid or severely reduce VAT on goods posted from subsidiaries in the Channel Islands. This will level the playing field for smaller and even some large online and mail-order outfits that can’t afford or aren’t inclined to cheat the exchequer to the tune of some £140million a year which, although I found almost everything else in the Chancellor’s latest tax grab punitive and socially divisive, is basically a good thing. Except for the outfit I buy my award winning re-cycled ink jet cartridges from.

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