The Gordian Knot of newspapers, journalism and making money

I have a lot of questions; I don’t have many answers.
Four years ago, I thought the questions I should ask were: Why aren’t we tweeting? Do we have a Facebook page? Shall we start a Flickr group? How do we go about running a 3-day liveblog? etc etc
About two years ago I started asking new questions. These were: Are we engaging enough? Why do we have so much online shovelware? Why are we holding that story for print? and – increasingly – Why aren’t newspapers doing more to help themselves? 
Twelve months down the line and there was another shift in questions. They became: Why are we still having this discussion? Does anyone really believe people will part with hard cash for what we currently offer online? Does anyone have any answers? 

Years of questions that went from being all about the shiny, dynamic world of digital journalism and engagement, to articulating concerns about the inability of the legacy end of the business to catch up, to frustration.
And you know what? There are a lot of people asking ‘does anyone have any answers?’ – you can almost hear the sound of cyber coughing, and the shuffling of digital feet, as we wait for someone to fill in the silence.

Last week, Alan Rusbridger had a go at filling the silence, and suddenly we all wanted to talk about it too. Kevin Anderson wrote this:

The Guardian needs an intervention. Digital first will not be enough to save it. It needs to remember that although they are supported by a trust, that is not a licence to completely ignore business realities. 

and sparked a pretty wide-ranging and long-lasting debate; even yesterday I saw on Twitter he was being challenged for this stance by Journalism Luminaries Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rose. However, as someone on the inside of the mainstream media (non-Trust), looking out, his thoughts on the need to be more commercially aware resonated with me.
I have sat through a lot of conferences where the future of journalism has been talked into submission but the survival of the mainstream media barely registered, which is fine if you don’t work in mainstream media but I do, and it’s a subject close to my heart.

When I read the Guardian announcement, my first thought was it seemed a slightly more elegant approach to the Gordian Knot that is the Future of Journalism/Newspapers than Alexander might have taken, but it was still from the same school of “FUCK THIS for a game of soldiers”. Maybe Rusbridger’s also had enough of asking Why are we still having this discussion? 

At the first News:rewired conference Marc Reeves spoke about the need for journalists to be more commercially savvy and aware of opportunities for their advertising departments. His message was misunderstood by some as saying journalists should sell advertising and he drew some criticism. Those people missed the point of his message.

I read this on Afrodissident today

I read with dismay a few days ago that Business Day was developing an app for iPad. I’m no Luddite, but I think it’s a crying shame knowing that money’s being wasted on a gimmick when it should be rather spent on improving the paper’s core product.

Personally, I doubt making an app will detract from the core product – resourcing an app is the tiniest drop in the ocean compared to keeping the legacy product afloat but it’s an eloquent blog post that poses some interesting questions.
Several years ago, when I first got to experiment with all sorts of digital tools for engagement, community building, conversation and interaction, for the first time I understood there was an audience waiting to talk to us about what we do, and had their own views about what we should and shouldn’t do. It was an exceptionally liberating and illuminating time. The Shiny doesn’t distract me from my job, it helps me do it better.
It isn’t the whole solution; perhaps it’s more important to work out much of the answer it could be. I don’t think The Guardian is going to act as a canary for the rest of the media in this – it is, after all, a unique beast – but the News International model hasn’t worked at regional level so far.
I guess it’s going to throw out a whole new set of questions.

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4 thoughts on “The Gordian Knot of newspapers, journalism and making money

  1. A good writeup of the issue. It goes back to the old debate of newspapers being designed to push information that readers can then debate.

    With digital the focus shifts from newspapers having to pull information from other places and encourage debates on their own properties. It's a much more fundamental change than the questions of 4 years ago (should we use Twitter…. etc).

    Having a digital first strategy at the Guardian was a necessary step, especially in aligning the employees. From a reader perceptive nothing needs to change, but all the Guardian staff have to understand digital and how it can be used to build the brand.


  2. Koozai, you're right – we are at a stage where evolution moved us along gradually but a more fundamental change in our thinking has yet to happen.
    Your point about the staff understanding digital and how it can be used to build the Guardian/a.n.other paper brand goes to the heart of cultural change I guess – everyone likes to feel like someone knows what's going on. Stating 'this is where we're going' is the first stage – the next is to produce the map of the route, perhaps?


  3. Alison, thanks for the mention and the great post filled with honesty. In 2005, I had the honour of going to the Web+10 conference at Poynter in the US with Steve Herrmann, one of my editors at the BBC. There were so many pioneers there including Steve Yelvington, Kinsey Wilson then of USAToday now of NPR and Steve Outing, just to name a few. So many of the conversations revolved around how to grow digital revenue to make up for the then gentle declines in the print business. We knew the clock was ticking on how long print would be have the returns to sustain what we had, but we also knew while the digital growth percentages were impressive, they were starting from a low base.
    Over the last year, it became clear to me that while we digital folks had built up really impressive editorial offerings including a lot of engagement that we had another huge task, building a sustainable business to support journalism. Some of that has been because a lot of newspapers don't have dedicated digital sales teams. Digital has too often been a low-margin sweetener for a print advertising package. The newspaper groups that are doing well digitally often are making digital pounds instead of pence on transaction businesses that look very different than our traditional content businesses (but often not all that different from classified businesses).
    This is the challenge for our generation of journalists. We not only have to build apps, build engagement and inform our audiences, we also have to rebuild the business that supports professional journalism. It's daunting, but we're up to it. Keep fighting the good fight!


  4. Hey Kevin, I know you're dashing around the world a lot nowadays so it's kind of you to stop by here and add your thoughts and encouragement.
    Your post articulated and addressed things I'd been puzzling over in the wake of the announcement; although I don't pretend to know the world of the Guardian the common issue – whether it's a 5k sales-a-week local paper or an award-winning daily broadsheet – comes down to costs and profits.
    As you say, for journalists we have to factor in the traditional and emerging aspects of our jobs AND be more business aware.
    Tell you what, my days of sitting in the horticultural tent at the local agricultural show, transcribing results for the following week's paper, seems a long time ago 😉


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