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Do newspapers have a future?

18 Sep 2015  |  Chris Blackhurst 
Do newspapers have a future?

Ahead of The Future of National Newspapers conference, Chris Blackhurst, former editor of the Independent and who will be chairing the event, wonders whether the medium has any future at all...

Turn on the television news channels first thing in the morning or last at night, and there will be people discussing stories in newspapers. Switch on the radio, and it's the same.

Go to Google, put in a news search and the chances are, the main items will carry the names of newspapers.

Think of any major news story, and unless it is some sort of disaster or terrorist outrage, the likelihood is that it will have had its origins in a newspaper newsroom.

We breathe, eat, drink and sleep newspapers - but we don't consume them. They are one of the pillars of our society, the fourth estate, yet we do not buy them - not in the numbers we used to at any rate.

The average decline is running at about 12% - that's the average, don't forget. Some titles are in far worse shape, some better. Newspapers, though, continue to occupy our attention - we're just not devouring them in print like we used to.

But, faced with this reduction, coupled with a commensurate fall in advertising, what is the future of newspapers? Indeed, do they have any future at all?

The simple, intuitive answer has to be no. There is not an industry anywhere that could cope with that rate of reduction, and survive.

In most cases, circulations are a fraction of what they were only a few years ago. There comes a point when sales are so small that not every outlet can be covered, that supermarkets question the worth of stocking them and affording them valuable retail space.

As they cut back the papers, local and national, and cease to offer full coverage, they lose their USP. Theirs is a vicious downward spiral, of slashed budgets, lost readers, more cuts, and further drops in sales.

They've all got websites, usually one of two kinds - free to all, or only open to those who pay. Whichever variety appears not to matter - so far no newspaper has produced profitability figures for the web that cause everyone to sit up and take notice.

This, as well, against a backdrop of heightened competition from other, non-newspaper news services; and consumers who are decreasingly loyal. In this country, too, they're up against a BBC, which has a massive news operation and an Internet site which more than does the job of a decent newspaper.

Historic local papers have vanished in the face of a relentless BBC onslaught - one that owes little to its broadcasting remit.

There is really no rhyme nor reason why newspapers should continue to exist. Certainly, by now, the exodus should be well under way.

Possibly late in the day, the newspapers have woken up to the fact that their readers trust them."

It hasn't happened, not among the nationals anyway. More locals have closed, but I would argue that's as much to do with them taking poor management decisions, relocating their news-gathering to distant centres, ceasing to have a presence locally, lowering quality, before anything else.

Nationally, only a handful has shut. The rest struggle on.

But before we write them off, consider that most titles still generate substantial profits; they're much tighter, leaner, better-managed places than they once were.

They're non-unionised on the whole, and their employees are working harder than their counterparts of yesteryear. New technologies have made the process of making and distributing papers a lot easier and more efficient.

It's easy, too, focusing only on the sales chart, to forget that newspapers remain trophy assets. Perhaps not to the same degree as before, but to own a newspaper, to be a press baron, is to be somebody. There may be more profitable businesses, there may be one that offers greater return on investment, but they do not supply the same social and political cachet.

There is no shortage, even now, of people wishing to become newspaper proprietors.

Possibly late in the day, the newspapers have woken up to the fact that their readers trust them. It's a bond that can be exploited, so newspapers have begun offering their own-label holidays, financial services and other products.

They've also realised that they can test that trust. In the past, editors would reject sponsorship and advertorial proposals. Not any more. As long as the editorial is not impugned, they're willing to explore any commercial suggestion, any thought as to what to put around it.

It's taken many local newspaper closures but the politicians have realised, finally, that the reach of the BBC should be curbed."

Newspapers do one thing extremely well: they produce reliable content. Until now, the emphasis in digital has been about speed. It's been a "how fast, never mind what it is we're sending", approach. That is changing.

Network operators, search engines, social media sites - they're all waking up to content. Some, and some other companies, too, are building their own newsrooms. Still others, it's mooted, are looking to team up with newspapers. Facebook and Google are in this category. The danger, though, in any newspapers partnering these behemoths is loss of control, loss of identity.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon went one better and bought the Washington Post. Now some Amazon customers in the US are to be given copies of the Washington Post.

Within that push for content, some items are more in demand. Comment and longer pieces have a special appeal - where once it was supposed the internet was the preserve of shorter news bites that is not so. Articles that go viral on the web and have a longer, lasting value are think pieces and news features. These are the bread and butter of newspapers.

It's taken many local newspaper closures but the politicians have realised, finally, that the reach of the BBC should be curbed. The BBC, too, seems less resistant to this proposal than others, possibly because it knows that local news does not go to the heart of what it does.

New business models for newspapers have emerged. The Evening Standard went free, and thanks to raising its circulation from a little over 100,000 every day to close to 1m, is now making a profit after large losses, its future apparently guaranteed.

Papers have disappeared but we've had one national launch. The i newspaper, the cheekier, younger sibling to The Independent, has attracted its own following, and, because virtually all of its content emanates from the flagship, it's possible to claim, rightfully, "Independent journalism is hitting a larger audience than ever."


Chris Blackhurst is a British journalist and former editor and group content director of The Independent.

Tickets for Mediatel's Future of National Newspapers conference on Wednesday 23 September are available here.

Chaired by Chris Blackhurst and Dominic Mills, panellists include Raymond Snoddy, Fleet Street Fox (Susie Boniface), the Guardian's Jane Martinson, the Independent's Christian Broughton, Trinity Mirror's James Wildman, GNM's Nick Hewat, News UK's Karin Seymour and Opera's Adam Pace.

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Tim, Greatrex, Rezonence on 21 Sep 2015
“Quite a rosy outlook then until you look at the gap between falling print revenues and the growth in digital revenues, the rise and rise of ad-blocking and the intervention of the big tech giants! I think the point here is that we are all agreed strong journalism that we can trust is an imperative or else everybody's interest in what the 'papers' have to say will wain. For this to happen digital needs to pay for itself and journalisms future but the 'Free' and Paywall models are unconvincing... The search for a 3 monetisation strategy is a must and it will require bold publishers, editors and commercial teams working together, really working together, along with their readers views. Looking forward to Wednesday's conference.”