A Brave New World for the British press

In Opinion on November 23, 2012 at 9:25 PM

Next Thursday (November 29), Lord Justice Leveson will release his report press ethics in British ethics, which commentators are heralding as a step change in the industry. But this largely misses the point; the change is well underway.

The London Evening Standard reported this week, obviously with more than a little smugness, a 3% increase from last year in its readership from April to September, a 32% increase in The i’s (its sister paper), and that it posted a trading profit of over £1 million. Therefore bucking a general trend – The Times and The Daily Telegraph saw equivalent readerships drop 10% and 7% respectively.

But this tale of the decline and transformation of the print media is well-worn, and largely accepted as inevitable due to including increased competition (not only for news but leisure time), damaged reputations, ease of online publishing, falling readerships, decreasing advertising revenue and consumers’ tightened belts.

The picture painted, albeit with some self-interest and self-preservation, is often an ominous one – a worrying step into the unknown where the traditional bastions are no more, or at least no longer what they were. But could their demise pave the way for more creative, versatile replacements? A look at the way City University teaches journalism now, as reported in The Independent, might suggest so. The institution has just appointed Britain’s first Professor of Entrepreneurial Journalism, has students pitch a magazine brand to a Dragons’ Den-type panel, and extols the benefits of freelancing and ‘portfolio journalism’.

This trend can be seen in the recent rise to prominence of ‘freemium’ papers and magazines, such as ShortList and Sport in addition to the continued standing of The Metro and London Evening Standard – not to mention the vast array of new sites/blogs (often just different names for the same thing). So, superficially at least, it seems the changes will be positive for the consumer in terms of greater choice, and indeed, in many cases, the consumer becoming the creator.

But I’m not so sure it’s so great, at least from my position as a journalist/aspiring journalist (I have a kind of journalistic job and do other bits and pieces). Many others who did the NCTJ I completed nearly a year ago have struggled to find work, been in and out of work (due to job insecurity rather than inability), and taken on – somewhat against their will – jobs in the media revolving more around marketing, PR and sales.

Or gone ‘freelance’. The word often conjures up images of the networking high-flier, but is often just a nice byword for unemployment, essentially. In truth, the reality usually lies somewhere in between, though it’s typically a more fruitful situation for seasoned journos doing it out of choice, due to existing connections, rather than up-and-coming hacks doing it out of the necessity of no other options.

And the journalistic culture of extreme competition, low pay and job uncertainty is often criticised for implicitly excluding prospective journalists; notably ethnic minorities, due to finance and access issues – something new charity Creative Access aims to address by securing paid one-year internships for ethnic minorities.

I don’t wish to complain overly, particularly as I count myself lucky to have a stable job (kind of) in the industry, but it is worth considering whether positive changes to the consumer equal positive changes to the writer (or creator).

That’s even if this ‘New Media Era’ heralds a better outlook for your everyday reader, which I’m not sure it does. There’s a risk of forgetting the scope and quality of established papers – indeed, despite having one of the lowest circulations of UK nationals, the Guardian website is one of the most trafficked in the world. All the national papers have experienced and versatile journalists, and even the oft-decried tabloids target their respective readerships very well.

And then there’s the issue of editorial integrity. Journalism is in the strange position of being regarded, at its heart at least, as for the public good – informing the public, holding those in power accountable, exposing corruption and so forth – yet almost inherently needs avoid state control. So papers face an awkward balance between satisfying shareholders and readers. So, on the one hand, you’ve got ‘honest’ papers like the Guardian losing around £33m a year; and on the other, criticism of the scale and type of advertising and the increasing prevalence of advertorials and sponsored supplements. With traditional sales increasingly dropping, papers will, indeed do, face ever more tricky decisions on where the acceptable line between journalism and commerce lies.

Whatever happens, it seems the days of buying a paper for the daily commute, or buying a Sunday paper in the morning to read leisurely in the garden, are dying. And I think that’s a shame. But then I’m usually asleep on Sunday morning due to my odd, semi-journalistic, nights job, from which I get free papers. And you’re reading this online. You can fight the system, but you usually lose.

Joel Durston

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