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PUBLISHING FOLLY AHEAD: HELP WANTED June 12, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Media.
25 comments

If you love the printed word, skip the next eight paras. Otherwise…

Reporting in the Guardian’s Media Blog on May 18th, the sainted David Hepworth reported comments proudly made by Zillah Byng-Maddick, the newly anointed CEO of Future Publishing, after announcing hundreds of job-cuts as the company rushes onto a digital-only, erm, future. “Now,” he noted, “a single content and marketing team would produce all content.” Zillah Byng-Maddick – who oversaw Auto Trader’s transition from print to digital – claimed  ‘our expert, trusted content enables us to attract large communities of highly engaged customers who want to buy things, and that’s exceptionally appealing to our clients’.

“No mention,” notes Hepworth,  “of either readers or advertisers there. Instead it’s customers and clients, two words that an editor used to be able to go through an entire career without allowing them to sully their lips.”

In fact Future, which is the only publicly quoted (what used to be called) magazine publisher in the country, and thus beholden to shareholders who give not a fig about anything but profit, is busy selling off its titles to whoever’ll buy them. Most recently this means Immediate Media, who also acquired all of BBC’s magazines in 2011 and has re-energised them, especially the once considered moribund but now hugely profitable Radio Times which sells 830,000 copies an issue.

I used to work for Future in the ‘90s and greatly enjoyed doing so but under a succession of hard-nosed CEOs and CFOs  the “digital transition” means blood on the carpet and a lot of creative types wondering what’s hitting them. The story’s the same right across magazine publishing with the emphasis on providing what advertisers rather than readers want, based on the assumption that as Byng-Maddick slyly implies, readers will buy anything editorial tells them to buy because at least in the short term, editorial is trusted. That, in my view, is because the instant availability of information in today’s Wiki-world seems to infer an aura of authority.

And then we have Robert Peston writing in the London Evening Standard that, “The relentless cycle of cost-cutting at traditional news media is giving growing and potentially worrying power to the public relations industry.”

He then bemoans, “the fetishisation of hiring young people who supposedly understand the digital world… but (who have) few proper contacts. Now newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR-generated surveys, because they lack the resources to generate their own, high-quality stories.”

And yet at the recent Hay Festival, there was an overt ‘Print Isn’t Dead’ theme – a bit rich coming from an organisation which avidly embraces digital readers. Nevertheless an interesting item in its promo-bumf virtually celebrated the fact that we spent £93million less on printed books last year than in 2013, but in the next breath reckoned that “by producing high-quality editions, traditional publishers can shore up sales and retain the loyalty of self-confessed papyrophiles.” (I assumed ‘papyrophiles’ are readers who like ink-on-paper). A claim possibly justified by the statistic that sales of hardbacks rose by 11.5% in America last year.

Whatever you make of all this, now might not seem the time to be launching a print magazine, especially so if you’re middle-aged and somewhat phobic towards digital media. So of course that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I need your help.

As occasionally reflected in these blogs, I’m a big fan of old cars and ‘bikes. (I was going to witter on here about the monstrous consequences to my Citruin XM after recently hitting a badger at 80mph, or replacing the catalytic converter on my Twingo money-pit, but you’d only laugh). My career in automotive journalism began in 1972 in the offices of Car magazine where I’d conceived a bratty little motorcycle magazine called, with vaulting imagination, Bike. And extraordinarily, after many incarnations it remains the market leader. But Car’s staff taught me that original prose and careful editing mattered, and in its day it was superior in both respects to anything else around. Its stellar writers included Doug Blain, L.J.K Setright and Mel Nichols and their descriptive powers, love of both language and machinery inspired and instructed me.

Now I am old I miss those great writers and their freedom to let their knowledge and critical enthusiasm run wild over 2, 3, or 4,000+ words. Today’s motoring (and motorcycling) magazines rarely contain articles over 1500 words long and have become tediously formulaic. And this because their writers are constrained by the short attention spans of a digital constituency, or as Peston implies, because the emphasis is on young hacks who don’t know how to craft a long-form essay.

But I believe that those of us who grew up with cars in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – i.e. today’s classics – still know how to read more than a page of bland text displayed on a desktop and who appreciate the informed opinions of people who can still write it. So this autumn I’m investing, if not squandering my savings in what will be a small, but perfectly formed periodical full of great writing about great cars, the great men and women responsible for them, and their great escapades and achievements.

I already have some fine contributors onboard, but I’d ask any of you who have such stories to tell, and who can really write as well as read, to contact me – or recommend appropriate others. If nothing else, in these strange and difficult times for the printed word, it should be quite an adventure: williams.mark1@gmail.com

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Age Concerned June 4, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
10 comments

I’ve been trying to finish this blog since the end of April but work, hedonism and indolence have proven effective hindrances. However a slight lull in the proceedings now allow me to wrap it up and as long as the lull continues – which it looks set to for a few more days – another one might well ensue before you can say “Whining Willy”.

I recently attended a protest meeting in opposition to HS2, albeit specifically concerned with the hideous blight the initial part of the route will have on North London. Most of the speakers were well-versed on their subjects, whether it be the damaging effects 10+ years of constructing the railway will have on health, housing, small businesses and the environment but only Frank Dobson MP, who represents part of Camden, alluded to the bigger picture. HS2, he pointed out, was conceived “on the back of a fag-packet” by the previous Labour government with almost no consideration for its likely negative effects or, indeed, its alleged economic benefits, a conception the Coalition government has subsumed with little more serious research and such as been done has concluded that the planned route was deeply flawed and the economic benefits decidedly sketchy.

But I am not about to rant against the whole misguided, damaging and invalid waste of taxpayers’ money that HS2 represents, rather to offer some more peripheral observations that the protest meeting prompted. Held in Britain’s home of folk music, Cecil Sharp House in Camden, it was almost entirely if well attended by people in their 50s, 60s and beyond, the baby boomers who, depending on your viewpoint, are largely responsible for Britain’s economic and social ills or alternatively, its cultural virtues. Naturally I subscribe to the former belief, but in my quite considerable experience as a bona fide silver serf  I’ve learnt  that us lot tend to run the committees, the pressure groups, the local charity organisations and the like that arguably make life worth living in a society where successive governments have capped or reduced funding for anything remotely related to quality of life.

I worked out that most of my friends and more intimate acquaintances sit on committees or help run voluntary outfits of one sort or another, many several times over. Then again, I actually gave up chairing a music and events charity recently for reasons that will probably be familiar to many of us who engage in such activities, namely a wearying clash of personalities with one particularly vociferous individual who was a disruptive element. Which underlines the inherent weakness of working for a voluntary body where there’s no coherent chain of command: lazy-bones or troublemakers can’t be sacked, and the only reward for your often quite significant labour is the satisfaction of goals achieved… or not as the case may be.

Unsurprisingly then, over the years I’ve noticed that in each of the outfits I’ve been involved with there’s been a steady turnover of committee members who for whatever reason couldn’t hack it any longer and who felt they had better things to do with their time. And attending that HS2 meeting, I was reminded that in many cases “life’s too short” could often be another reason for bailing out, because I fear despite all logic and all the protests, the government is going to railroad – sorry – this white elephant through in order to save face… and provide jobs for the boys and the bankers.

I’m now, and regretfully, of retirement age but the slippers, golf clubs and Rhine River cruises that are synonymous with this don’t really appeal, even if I had a decent pension to fund them (alright, I can afford the slippers). Most of my peers and pals also choose or are economically obliged to carry on working and as I said, almost all of us do voluntary work. The National Trust was recently criticised for working its small army of middle- and let’s face it, old-aged volunteers too hard, but without them that organisation, like many other so-called cultural institutions, would simply collapse.

So what I’m getting at is that Britain’s volunteer workforce ought, at the very least, to get tax breaks on what money we do earn, and for those who earn nothing but spend significant amounts of time helping others, then how about a bigger state pension Mr Bloody Osborne?

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