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.