Oh Peter! You're just being sentimental

Duncan McLeod, former associate editor of the Financial Mail, recently burst onto the scene with a great new addition to my regular daily reads. On his new Techcentral site there have been two articles that caught my attention — the first being a fiery piece by former Vodacom CEO Allan Knott-Craig, and now an interview with respected local newspaper editors: SA editors mull the future of newspapers in a digital world.

I’m familiar with print-online politics: I’ve had the benefit of working in an online role for a progressive print company, the Mail & Guardian, for more than seven years. I’ve also had the benefit of studying new media — and never working in any medium but online. I just don’t get sentimental about newspapers the way many print people seem to.

This sentimentality was none so evident than in Business Day editor Peter Bruce’s interview. I was trying to understand where he was coming from and what his argument was — and then it struck me: There is no argument. He’s just sentimental. He’s clinging on to a comfortable way things have always been done and what he knows.

‘Stop subscribing to newspapers’
The TechCentral interview was sparked by a comment by First National Bank CEO Michael Jordaan that Bruce took umbrage to. In an FNB newsletter Jordaan wrote that we “should simply stop subscribing to newspapers” because the news is now available online. It prompted an indignant retort from Bruce — a retort that demonstrates a mindset thoroughly out of step with the changes sweeping across the world we live in.

Who is Bruce to prescribe how his readers (including the employees at FNB) get their news anyway? It’s a controlling attitude that belongs to an era where things were simpler and more predictable for media.

Confusing journalism with newspapers
Bruce also muddles “newspapers” and “journalism”. Journalism exists without newspapers, not because of newspapers. Newspapers were the medium of the day. That day is passing. It so happens that most quality journalism still comes from newspapers because that’s where the revenues are at the moment. Those revenues, however, look increasingly unimpressive in the face of crippling print and distribution costs — the albatross around many print businesses’ necks.

It’s also got relatively little to do with internet penetration. Publications like Business Day play in markets with internet penetration upwards of 90% (or higher). The key reason we’re seeing advertising revenue continue flowing to newspapers, I’ve argued elsewhere, are institutional biases preserved by a generation in both the media and advertising industry who have lost touch with the pace of the new digital economy.

Most local newspaper companies have sizeable sales staffs all geared to selling one thing: That newspaper. Online is “added value” and the handful of online sales staffers (handful because there is no money in online, you see) are low priority. And yet newspapers wonder why their online publications aren’t bringing in the bucks?

How Bruce should have responded
So the response to Jordaan should have been “fine, read our website or our mobile edition because that is what you prefer — but then support it with online advertising the way you supported my newspaper”. But Bruce doesn’t think like that. His first love is his paper. Websites appear to be that furtherest blip on the radar.

Bruce’s ambivalent attitude towards online is strangling his publication’s digital strategy. Online to him is not that important because he probably reasons that his site (unlike some others) doesn’t bring in significant revenue or readership. What he doesn’t realise is that he’s part of the problem and may be holding his digital property back. It’s not making real money so it’s dependent on his print title, the online staff are junior (because it’s not making money you see) and the quality of content is low. It’s not given the room or investment to breathe in a suffocating museum-like atmosphere. It’s a catch-22, a self-fulfilling prophecy if you like. And it keeps the website right where it belongs.

Far from the bleak times Bruce implies we are headed for (because newspapers = journalism), the internet is creating an abundant supply of journalism. What an irony then, Mr Bruce, that your very interview was published on an online-only publication of a journalist who has walked away from the print magazine he used to work for. Let’s also not forget about the “fifth estate” — the millions of bloggers, small website owners and “citizen journalists” offering commentary and news on a daily basis.

Progressive print operations
I’ve had the benefit of working for a print operation with a different take on online strategy. It’s an attitude that saw the Mail & Guardian website achieve profitability and significant advertising revenue — and a relatively small media company became one of the top ten websites in the country. This was because visionary Mail & Guardian CEO and now frequent Tweeter, Trevor Ncube, supported a strong, independent online operation. And under him it flourished, punching way above its weight. The defining moment came when the head of online stopped reporting to a print editor, but directly to the CEO. The online strategy was afforded priority and authority — ambivalence was replaced by an uncompromising focus and determination.

Another progressive print operation is run by The Times editor Ray Hartley. Hartley is possibly the most innovative print editor this country has ever seen. His comments in that same article are more on the mark: He sees change coming. Journalism will thrive irrespective of medium. In fact it will thrive on multiple mediums.

Yes, newspapers will never die
And I’m not a newspaper doomsayer. In fact I believe newspapers will never die. I think they will niche and become lifestyle items — valuable off-time in an invasive, busy, noisy digital future.

In fact, saying newspapers will die is akin to us saying in the 1960s that we’ll no longer have fireplaces in our houses because we’ve invented electric heaters. Yes, electric heaters come on at the flick of a switch and are less messy — but they just don’t have the charm and feel-good feeling of a roaring fire. It’s an irrational lifestyle thing. Just because the digital medium is more efficient, it does not automatically mean people will ditch papers for it en masse.

We also need to realise that newspapers will be around in emerging markets for many years to come. I’m sure Daily Sun publisher Fergus Sampson must think most “print is dead” commentators are on crack, considering that his newspaper is booming, breaking circulation records on a monthly basis. But that’s just a timing thing, because eventually this market will feel pressure too.

Newspapers are just one of many mediums, Peter. There’s nothing to be sentimental about: The future is exciting.

Comments (16)

  1. You cannot escape the future any less than you can escape the past.

    He who controls today, controls tomorrow.


    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 10:57 am #
  2. Nic wrote::

    Great response Matt. Spot on with your solutions and the way Bruce should have responded. It’s about choice now. Newspapers are obligated, moving forward, to offer their readers a choice of platform.

    Don’t force me to read where you want me to read, let me choose the platform.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 11:03 am #
  3. anne wrote::

    Great article, Matt. Especially pleased that you raise the issue of problems around online advertising. Print is still a hog and online a very distant, poor seventh cousin in terms of ad revenue.
    I can’t help thinking that it is time local publishers plugged into what *news consumers* think and want. Too much discussion around this issue – especially in a South African context – is based on anecdotal and personal evidence. And all too often, publishers believe they should follow “global trends”. Peter Bruce may be sentimental, but he was right in pointing out that only 12 newspapers have closed, which is hardly surprsing given the severity of the economic downturn.
    But I don’t believe that South African newspapers are bucking international trends simply because we’re behind the wave… I think there’s a good possibility there’s something unique about this market and South Africans may just hop, skip and jump straight to a completely different delivery mechanism – when the time is right.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 11:09 am #
  4. Roger Hislop wrote::

    Good point, well argued. I love reading newspapers, it allows me a quick gallop through all topics very quickly, and dive in if something catches my eye (I don’t neccessarily give a damn about Japanese politics, but hey, there’s an interesting story about voters finally throwing out those old LibDem bastards!).

    But reading my daily paper is an indulgence when I need a break and a cup of tea… most of my local news comes from News24, MG and ITWeb (and now TechCentral ;), international from Slate, Spiegel and NYT.

    What do these all have in common? Excellent content.

    Mr Bruce: It’s the Content, not the Medium. Focus, man, focus!

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 11:14 am #
  5. Robert wrote::

    Matt: Business Day makes most of its money from company notices and ads. Try publishing a JSE-listed company’s financial report online and you’ll understand why advertisers prefer the newspaper.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 11:46 am #
  6. Alan Hammond wrote::

    You are correct about advertising still going to print because of habit, or institutional biases as you call them.

    But there’s one even more important reason – especially for Business Day.

    JSE listed companies are required to advertise their annual results in newspapers. Rules used to be one Afrikaans paper and one English. I’m not active in that field but I believe that the language issues might have changed but the requirement to advertise in newspapers is still in place.

    So Business Day is subsidised by the JSE.

    Would Business Day newspaper exist without the full page (often more than 1 full page) ads taken out by listed companies. Clearly not.

    I am a great fan of Business Day, and I think Peter Bruce is a great newspaper editor. Its just a pity, as you mention in your post, that he is oblivious to online.

    Bruce has done a lot to build the brand over the last few years, expanding the core product to include a number of niche content areas. Unfortunately these have all been print based.
    Everywhere in the world print is suffering, but Peter Bruce still carries on launching new print publications!

    And how come there is very little advertising on Business Day website but lots on Moneyweb and MyBroadband? For a media house like Avusa that’s shocking!

    PS I don’t subscribe to the Business Day anymore, I read the daily email newsletter they send me and then click on the stories I find interesting. Only two features in the paper are missing from online: The Alex cartoon and Peter Bruce’s weekly column. I miss them both but not enough to pay for a subscription.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 11:57 am #
  7. Matt you know I’m in community papers and exactly which paper.

    I’ve been trying to get our website upgraded for over a year.

    Go to said site if you haven’t already and you’ll probably fall off your chair when you read “About us”.

    Website has not been updated since 2006.

    If this company cannot see the importance of upgrading this online medium how can they even think about the mobile medium?

    We are missing out big time as with every issue we could be encouraging people to migrate and win their loyalty.

    Someone has to be first.

    I like @nic’s comment

    “Don’t force me to read where you want me to read, let me choose the platform.”

    and to add to it, “and when I want to use it.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 12:37 pm #
  8. justin spratt wrote::

    great post Matt. Agree with all of it.

    FYI: struggling to share this on facebook nicely. you prob know alreay

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 4:01 pm #
  9. matt wrote::

    @anne 12 newspapers may have closed, but it’s widely recognised that many are in trouble. Economic downturns cause us to look at the world differently, break old habits and re-assess. I’d suggest that advertisers would be increasingly attracted to mediums where they get more value for money.

    @Robert if i’m not mistaken the law now allows for financial results to be published online. (This was some time ago). With a bit of imagination I think it would be easy to reformat Financial Reports for online. In fact it would be an easier read and a richer experience, for example if presented in an interactive way (like something akin to an excel sheet). But why would a newspaper sales executive or print editor drive this innovation because it risks taking sales away from his newspaper?

    @Alan Hammond i stand to be corrected, but I think the law now allows for online publication too, or it was mooted some time ago. Perhaps someone could clarify for us?

    @myphotographer community papers should invest heavily in both their online and print properties. But they should take the online medium seriously and not view it as an “add on”, appointing serious senior staff to run with it. Otherwise it will struggle.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 4:17 pm #
  10. Justinus wrote::

    Great post Matt.

    This guy is a joke. I can’t actually beleive his attitude.

    But that just leaves gaps for us, so that is great. Keep going Peter!!!


    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 7:54 pm #
  11. Leon Jacobs wrote::

    I’ve always thought that community newspapers of all media organisations can really grasp the opportunity of the online space. They just have to build a really sexy social media news outlet once, then replicate it at low cost across many small communities.

    Sort of like craigslist, but with local news and discussion.

    Saturday, September 19, 2009 at 5:11 am #
  12. Peter Bruce wrote::

    Matt you have either misunderstood me in error or on purpose in order to make your response sound more cogent. Nowhere in my piece do I “confuse” newspapers and journalism. In fact, I specifically say in the piece that “You can be indifferent to the future of newspapers but not about journalism.” What’s confusing about that? My whole point was that, at this time in SA, killing off newspapers (which is what a wholesale cancellation of subscriptions as proposed by the FNB board would do) would put journalists on the street and websites, bless them for their many fine qualities, don’t have the money to hire them.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 1:07 pm #
  13. Nice response Peter.

    And Matt, yeah, seems the battle is being fought higher up the food chain.

    Anyway, all the tech in the world cannot buy personality.


    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 1:37 pm #
  14. Matthew – I’m amazed. For someone who’s not a real journalist to comment on legacy issues vs digital is a bit much. When was the last time you broke a story of significance ? Not a PR story which looks good on a blog, but a story that shakes the foundation of something – alters the course of history, leads to new technology, is quoted in parliament etc ? Being quoted on Facebook is not quite the same as being quoted in the real world. The top users of such zones are all in the entertainment field and marketing. Hardly worth mentioning next year.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 4:19 pm #
  15. matt wrote::

    @Peter — thanks for your comment. My reading of the interview is that you were saying that newspapers and quality journalism are synonymous and that quality journalism is threatened by the internet. After reviewing my piece and the article on Techcentral, I still hold that view.

    Here’s another sentence in that article that describes this: ‘He says newsprint has a long future ahead of it, but admits he’s “deeply concerned” about what the Internet means for the future of quality journalism.’

    The phrase you refer to: “You can be indifferent to the future of newspapers, but not about journalism” — I interpret as you warning: Those who decry newspapers, should realise that they are actually decrying journalism, ie it’s not newspapers you are killing, but journalism. I don’t read that as supporting the notion that journalism exists without newspapers, or that journalism thrives elsewhere. It may be a mis-interpretation, but the context of that phrase supports this interpretation.

    I felt your response to the FNB CEO missed the mark: They’re entitled to get their news online if that is their preference. Why not then focus your energies on building up your website business and attracting real ad revenue to it?

    Then — the “many fine qualities” of your website aside — it will show the ad revenue, which will allow you to hire even more journalists. I’ve seen a microcosm of this happening, that’s why I’m optimistic.

    Thanks for the debate.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm #
  16. To the future, which means pretty much today.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 9:33 am #