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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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1. Gus - April 17, 2012

Hi Mark,
Interesting article, as always, but I must point out one small thing regarding Amazon and the Post Office.
The reason why the Post Office couldn’t match the private company that won the Amazon contract is simply because they weren’t allowed to !
When the last Tory government decided we needed ‘choice’ in our mail service provision (or somesuch Bolleaux) and the Post Office needed ‘competition’, a formula was laid down whereby the new companies could undercut the Royal Mail, collect their customer’s business post, ‘pre-sort’ it and deliver it to their local Royal Mail depot where it would be re-sorted and delivered to the recipient.
Royal Mail gets a tiny income from this, that doesn’t come close to covering the costs to the business of doing it.
Meanwhile, the same sort of ‘management’ who you (rightly) criticise for their slash and burn policies in the newspaper business, is doing exactly the same to the Post Office.
And who loses out ?
Well, we do of course, but that’s hardly a surprise is it ?

markswill - April 18, 2012

Ooops, I didn’t know that about the RM and Amazon, but then I got my info from a biased third party… no changes there, then.

2. John Rushworth - April 18, 2012

Hi Mark. I enjoyed your clear experience and insight of a lifetime of work. As you say “Clearly we are seeing the not-so-slow death of print media”, and I have to say I am partly responsible. In the early 90s and out of work, I lived in small rural community and didn’t want to or could not afford to travel to jobs, 20 or more miles away. So I started a small Internet business and brought money and jobs (working from home) into the local economy. This was at the dawn of the first web browser, being one of the first 1% in the world on the net. We built the first Triumph motorcycles website. Anyhow, my point is – it’s the greed thing of large business that gets me where they don’t look to the long term social consequences of their actions or indeed the quality of their decisions, as you allude to. Having said that I am personally delighted with my eBook reader, because it allows me to buy works from authors that simply otherwise may not get published. Maybe that is a much needed revolution in itself. Yesterday’s purchase cost £1.29 inc VAT Across Islands and Oceans [Kindle Edition] James Baldwin (Author). Oh! dear I bought it from Amazon. The chap does a free pdf and html version though on his site. I like that, but chose to see him rewarded. i wonder how much he would get from my purchase?

markswill - April 18, 2012

I do take your point about eReaders John, but I still prefer the tactile experience of reading a book and even though barely employed, find I don’t have the time to read even all the authors’ works I know of, much less those I don’t. And with the rapid decline of indie bookshops and the migration to Amazon and eBooks, bang goes a load of employment, small businesses and locally re-distributed income. Blah-blah-blah Zzzzzzzzzz

3. Bill hudson - April 18, 2012

Spot on sir. I worked on the Yorkshire Post when it was selling up to 100,000 copies day. Since then a serious lack of investment in this and other regional titles has been slowly killing the goose. People won’t buy crap with no news in it. And all too few buy, nobody will advertise. Good stories are the lifeblood of circulation and advertising revenue. This can only be maintained by investing, by staffing up, and spending time on finding the exclusives. Readers don’t want stories lazily rehashed from a social networking site. And while mentioning the Internet, people shd pay. Don’t give the stories away. Just give a taster to tempt the reader in. Give people a good product and they will buy it. Simple

4. Tony Rooney - April 18, 2012

Hit the nail on the head as usual mark. Cant get into the electronic media myself though, still read the local rag and a daily. By the way nice pic in the sunday telegraph…….!!!

markswill - April 18, 2012

Your facility for gentle sarcasm has not deserted you, Tony! The pic was off my website, out of date but happily tiny. The one of La Mogg made her look 94 years-old and she and her son have ‘had words’ about his utterances which prompted the piece (on the back of the previous week’s Sunday Times’ ‘Relative Values’ thread. Yecch).

5. Hed Maginnis - April 18, 2012

Dead on, on the way of print news. Belfast Tele hasn’t been worth wiping your arse on, never mind buying and reading for a long time. Next one to go will be speech and news on commercial radio as everyone knows One Direction and Ronan Keating are what the people want.

Well done on ‘The racy past’, obviously Laverdas in the wet.
All the best.

markswill - April 18, 2012

Well Hed, Laverdas in the wet were but a trifle, but let’s leave it there!

6. David Cobbold - April 22, 2012

Same story over here in France I’m afraid Mark. Not so much up in the figures as you are, and French dailes were never big on readership either (largely because of the weight of weekly news magazines). But one sees print shrinking all the same. On a small scale, my only client in the French wine magazine scene has just gone west.

One big difference here is perhaps the book scene, since a special law (Lang, back with the last socialist government over 20 years ago) held all book retailrs to a maximum discount of 5%, thus allowing independant shops to stay alive. And they have, at least in big cities. God help you out in the sticks though: its all Amazon et al.

markswill - April 23, 2012

Interesting about the the book pricing ring-fence David: you may recall from your time in England that we had something similar called ‘Retail Price Maintenance’, specifically in the form of the ‘Net Book Agreement’ which was only abolished about 15-20 years ago. Since when, of course, indie bookshops began their decline.

David Cobbold - April 23, 2012

Yep. My local independant bookshop, on the edge of Paris, now has two other shops, one in an outlying suburb, one in a medium/small provincial town. So it does seem to work, at least for some.

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