The future of news

Most media houses are cutting staff in an effort to protect their profit margins; a new approach to news is required.

Some daily newspapers are losing evening editions and others are being turned into weekly publications [Reuters]

On Monday, the Telegraph reported that the Guardian was planning another round of job cuts. Although the Guardian has built one of the most popular news websites in the world, the revenues from its digital operations still don’t come close to compensating for the decline in print sales and the loss of associated advertising revenues. In the year to March, the publication reportedly lost £45 million.

Yet newspapers have little option but to follow their readers online. Last month, the editor, Alan Rusbridger, told staff at the Guardian that they had to “move beyond the newspaper, shifting focus, effort and investment towards digital, because that is our future”.

At the beginning of the year, the Guardian was reporting redundancies at the Telegraph. And since then, there has been no let-up in the bad news for employment in the newspaper business in Britain. Trinity Mirror and Johnston Media have cut staff in an effort to protect their profit margins. Some daily newspapers are losing their evening editions and others are being turned into weekly publications.

Advertising revenues

The situation in the US newspaper industry is somewhat further advanced. Papers with national reach and scale have suffered massive losses, while the regional press has had to make do with fewer and fewer staff. More than 100 titles have closed and print circulation is way down on what it was a decade ago, although there are signs that online subscriptions are starting to pick up. The New York Times, for example, created a paywall in March 2011 and now has more than 800,000 online subscribers. On the other hand, advertising revenues for the US industry as a whole – print and online – fell by 7.3 per cent in 2011 on the previous year, to $23.9 billion. In 2005, advertising peaked at more than twice that, at $49.4 billion.

Even allowing for the sluggish economy, there’s no reason to think that newspapers’ advertising revenues are going to return to their former levels. Newspapers have always been an aggregation of things that might interest readers – news stories, of course, but also opinion pieces, letters pages, crosswords, gossip columns, pictures of kittens, cartoon strips. Classified ads brought lonely hearts, buyers and sellers, friends and families of the newly born and the recently dead, as well as the idly curious, to the paper. The internet is busy disassembling the newspaper and reorganising its constituent elements in new forms. 

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In future, news operations will be competing for advertising revenues with sites that concentrate on one element of what print newspapers used to bundle together. Advertisers are going to migrate to those that can help them target potential customers with pinpoint accuracy. That, at any rate, is the theory behind the Facebook flotation. As for classified advertising, much of that has already been taken away by operations such as Craigslist (not to mention eBay).

But people still want news. We don’t all wake up every morning wondering what we’ve missed. But we have more than a passing interest in what happens in the world beyond our immediate experience. The question is – how are we going to ensure that we get the journalism we need? The record of the old media was patchy in this regard, as I and many others never tire of pointing out. And while the internet has made it far easier to find independent reporting and analysis, as John Dewey once noted, “knowledge cooped up private consciousness is a myth; a thing is fully known when it is published, shared, socially accessible”. The current structure of the industry empowers a handful of executives in very large media companies to decide what is “socially accessible”. 

Business of selling information

If we want the “contemporary and quotidian” inquiry that Dewey saw as the “precondition of public judgements”, we are going to have to pay, one way or another. And this is where it gets interesting. At the moment, newspapers are still in the business of selling information to their readers and selling their readers to advertisers. The power they try to keep to themselves. But what if newspapers made a deal with their readers? What if they said to them that, in exchange for a subscription, you can have a say in what the newspaper investigates, a say in what the newspaper makes “socially accessible”? Editors do all they can to make their newspapers appealing, but they are only human and they can scarcely hope to be representative of their readership. They are newspaper editors, after all.

Editors in the major newspapers mostly missed the impending car crash in the credit markets. With the honourable exception of the Guardian, they managed to ignore the fact that parts of their industry had become a clownish and sinister criminal conspiracy. Offshore finance, transnational crime and grand corruption have all been radically misreported if they haven’t been flat out ignored. The connections between them are hinted at in columns, rather than objects of “contemporary and quotidian” inquiry.

At the moment, editors decide what counts and what doesn’t count – what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Journalists that want to get their stories into print have to learn the rules of the game as it is currently played. They succeed to the extent that they deliver what their editors want. But the system that once paid their salaries and rewarded their willingness to play this game has broken down. Thousands are being driven out of the industry. Those journalists that remain are being paid less money to do more, and more menial, work.

Journalists as a body have so little to lose at this point that they might as well try being honest with themselves and their audiences. No newsroom, however well-staffed and dedicated, can know as much as its readers about what is in the public interest. Journalists are subject to all manner of more or less unspoken prohibitions and disincentives. Investigative journalism is expensive and dangerous and rarely makes sense in straightforward commercial terms. The current structure of the media ensures that most people, most of the time, experience events in the wider world as a series of unpleasant surprises. All this will change only when the daylight that journalists say they want to let in all areas of social darkness floods the editorial process.

It is time that a directing public, eager for an informed understanding, tried its hand at commissioning journalists. For it is the commissioning power – the power to direct the craft and curiosity of talented and motivated journalists – that is truly valuable. It is something that the public will pay for, once they have some inkling of what it means to exert it. The first major news operation to realise that will soon make up its lost advertising revenues. It might also change the world.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.

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