The Future of Print Journalism – our roving reporter attends the latest Media Society debate

Yesterday Phil Sherrell, Head of our Media, Entertainment & Sports group, attended the Media Society debate at The Groucho Club in London, ‘Lost for Words.. Is Print Dying Or Not?’, with speakers Professor Roy Greenslade of the Guardian and City Univeristy and Ray Snoddy OBE, former Media Editor of the Times. Phil reports back…

Yesterdays news
Image credit: flickr/creative commons, author (Mick Baker)rooster

Gloom in the room

Newspaper reach (via digital) is at an all time high, but the revenue making aspect (print) continues to struggle. Metro, City AM and the Evening Standard are held up as examples of success for the free model, but there is a general agreement that mass market print journalism is in terminal decline. The data suggests the ‘popular press’ looks particularly doomed, although Greenslade thinks that some of the broadsheets will survive as niche titles for a limited audience.

Digital domination

But the more important question is what is the future of journalism more generally? Can social news take over the role of holding power to account? Consensus is that this is unlikely – it’s certainly not part of the current business models of social media giants.

Or will digital revenues sustain the lost print revenues and keep traditional publishing names going? The data suggests not. At present, digital news is dominated by press titles which are using print sales to subsidise their digital operations. Even Mail Online, the most popular news website in the world, is loss-making at present.

Greenslade backs a levy on social media news providers to fill the funding gap, but most in the audience see this as market distortion (and who would choose who benefits from the levy?). But, looking ahead, what happens if the traditional publishing titles disappear – would social news feeds be the same without quality news to link to? Perhaps a point will come where social media platforms feel commercial interests compel them to share greater ad revenues with print titles, or instead to take on the mantle and invest in their own news operations.

Optimists take the view that lower digital barriers to entry will allow new providers of quality news to emerge and find ways to monetise if they get their market proposition right.

What went wrong with the established print titles?

An audience members highlights one of the classic examples of successful quality journalism, the thalidomide scandal, when The Sunday Times outed wrongdoing by its then biggest spending advertiser (Distillers) in one of the scoops of the 20th century. Editorial independence was completely robust and an article of faith for most newspapers; the newspaper knew that it was likely to lose its biggest advertiser, but published anyway. But maybe that separation of commerce and news held papers back when it came to dealing with the commercial challenges posed by the advent of digital?

An ad-tech executive highlights that newspapers’ digital offerings are perceived as low value by advertisers, because most titles have little to no customer data to allow proper targeting.

What is working at the moment?

• The Editor of The Standard is optimistic: advertisers will pay for publications which target their market in a very niche way (see also the Economist and Private Eye).

• An example from TV: Channel 4 has been very cute at knowing its audience and hence keeping ad revenue up via 4OD (to which 50% of 18-24 year olds in the UK are subscribed).

• And there is an emerging trend of wealthy individuals funding newspaper titles on a semi-philanthropic basis (e.g. Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post which is now hiring journalists, bucking the trend).

More generally, there is optimism that people have a natural desire to want to know what is happening in the world (and not consume fake news), so market logic suggests a new model will emerge.

Phil heads Bird & Bird's market-leading international Media, Entertainment and Sport group. His personal practice has a particular focus on contentious and pre-contentious matters in the music, publishing, advertising and digital content industries. He advises on all aspects of IP protection and enforcement, including acting on a number of Copyright Tribunal references in the UK in relation to the collective licensing of newspaper and music content, as well as some of the seminal disputes in relation to copyright infringement and online defamation and privacy issues. Phil sits on the Copyright and Technology Working Group of the British Copyright Council and regularly appears in the media commenting on media law and regulation.

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