using website header

Connected: Display Connected: Media Landscape Connected: Regional Connected: AV Consumer Surveys Connected: Direct LinkedIn LinkedIn logo icon Twitter Twitter logo icon Youtube Youtube logo icon Flickr Flickr logo icon Instagram Instagram logo icon Mail Mail icon Down arrow
Ellen Hammett 

Chris Blackhurst: "We’ll all go behind paywalls in the end"

The content director of the Independent and Evening Standard, Chris Blackhurst, has said that he believes all online national newspaper content will go behind a paywall - with the only remaining question being when.

During an often candid conversation with media journalist Raymond Snoddy at MediaTel's The Future of National Newspapers event, the former editor of the Independent said that there is "no magic formula" for newsbrands to monetise outside of print and that paywalls were now a business certainty.

"We'll all go behind paywalls in the end," Blackhurst conceded, placing him in agreement with News UK chief executive Mike Darcey, who is an uncompromising believer in charging for expensively assembled content.

It makes no economic sense, he said, that so much journalistic energy - and content - is given away for free.

Likewise, that every time something is put out for free on a website, the print brand will be damaged in the long-run: "why would you read a newspaper when you can read it for free online?" he said.

There is a worry that newsbrands are spreading their journalists much too thin."

The threat to journalistic content

For some, Snoddy included, there is also a deep-rooted concern that as newsbrands experiment with new business models and change how they operate, they are spreading their journalists much too thin.

Snoddy said that he was "desperately worried" for newsrooms around the UK as titles work towards becoming "multi-channel", whilst cutting costs and merging titles - principally because smaller numbers of journalists have to accomplish more and that can only impact the quality of content.

Indeed, earlier this summer the Independent made 27 compulsory redundancies, but the newsbrand's publisher is set to hire 60 recruits for its new Local TV offering, London Live.

"It's like slave labour" Snoddy jested, asking whether Blackhurst saw the irony in the way the platforms are expanding, yet the content providers - the teams of journalists - are cut back and overworked.

Consumers, according to Snoddy, may value quality journalism, but the hyper-fast digital reality of modern news risks turning less thoughtful, quick turn-around content into something less than principled journalism.

"The perfect, main selling-point of newspapers is journalism," says Snoddy. "You must not become a commodity."

This is most evident in how investigative journalism has, commercially, not made that much sense for some time now.

Papers may get an exclusive based on months of a journalist's hard and patient work - indeed, the Guardian is a fine example of this with its Edward Snowden scoops, but does it translate into a long-term gain, or just a short-term spike in readership?

Or, to put it another way, does it make money?

Blackhurst recognises the threat and countered it by saying that there is a need to be smarter with how they utilise journalists - taking two health correspondents as an example.

He explained that having two journalists working in the same newsroom but on different titles, affords a new opportunity to share workloads and use one for quick-turnaround copy whilst the other can dedicate time to longer-form and investigative journalism or relationship building, sharing content between titles.

"Two health correspondents working on two titles means we're stronger," Blackhurst says. "It frees people to find the left-field journalism that can change the world [...] but we need to be creative in the way we operate."

Does print have a future?

Despite recognising that print is in inevitable decline, Snoddy says that many print titles will survive for a long time yet.

Perhaps, he suggested, print will become a branded, luxury item - like hardback books.

Blackhurst shared a similar view, and said it is likely that newspapers will become "premium products", set at a premium price.

"There is something deeply pleasurable about reading a printed newspaper," he said. "Everything that is good about a well laid-out paper - where a reader can view everything on one page - is often lost online."

Advertisers like print too; with full page ads still an effective feature in print, but often lacking weight online - yet that is where more spend is going.

However, despite concerns about the cannibalisation of print, the outlook for the traditional medium still remains somewhat optimistic.

In 2002, Rupert Murdoch predicted that the only daily national newspapers left in operation by today would be the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Times.

As the media journalist Torin Douglas, who chaired the event, noted, there are the same number of daily national newspapers as there were more than a decade ago, demonstrating that people still value journalism and printed news.

Blackhurst's own titles have even seen some reversal in fortune; the Independent is losing £11m a year - but that is half the level it was when the Lebedevs took over.

Likewise, the Evening Standard has moved into profit since going free and massively increasing its circulation.

So does print then have a sustainable future? Last week Jeff Bezos, the Amazon owner who recently purchased the Washington Post, said in an interview with Today, that they do - and that printed newspapers were rather like horses.

"I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item," he said. "It's sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it's not their primary way of commuting to the office."

To find out about future events from MediaTel, please visit our dedicated events website.

Leave a comment

Thank you for your comment - a copy has now been sent to the Mediatel Newsline team who will review it shortly. Please note that the editor may edit your comment before publication.

Media Jobs