Recently my name appeared on Google Alerts, a rare occurrence these days. The reason was that Editor and publisher columnist John Newby was kind enough to recall my observation made 15 years ago: “How do I acquire a small local newspaper?” Buy a big one and wait five years. It was funny once, but some of us don’t have as good memories as John’s.
With hindsight, 2005 turned out to be the pivotal year for the development of the news:
- Publishers have stopped paying paltry sums to acquire already declining titles.
- It was the year between the launch of Facebook and the launch of Twitter.
- Newspapers began to lose their influence over politicians.
- Citizens began to discover “alternative facts”.
- Social media refused to acknowledge they were publishers.
- To avoid paying editors and activating the bile, social media companies have “distributed”.
- We started to realize that we were no longer in charge.
With 40 years of media experience as an analyst, executive, and strategist, I fondly remember that press sensation starting to rumble before briefly looking at the clock. At that time, deadlines were everything. Long-term thinking was next week. In 1994, I co-wrote “Online Electronic Publishing… Trends and Opportunities” for the World Association of Newspapers (now the World Association of Newspaper Publishers). In 2000, I ran the first UK media company to adopt Google. But in 2004, I advised the World Newspaper Congress – intoxicated by the attractiveness of an ever-larger audience and the resulting advertising potential – that these new friends should go from subordinates to friends to enemies. Facebook and Twitter quickly joined us.
Today’s digital ecosystem couldn’t be more complex. At one time, publishers expected to pay only agencies a 10-15% “commission”. Now, a multitude of unregulated intermediaries swallow up more than half of advertisers’ investment in addition to the commissions paid to their agency.
Digital is dominated by five or six entities whose collective value is equivalent to that of Germany. E-commerce now accounts for a quarter of all retail sales. This year, Amazon will succeed Walmart as the world’s largest retailer, unimpeded by store costs, trade transparency and tax compliance. The rest of the world has not lost sight of the fact that all of these companies are American.
In the United States, the media is largely deregulated. Television offers the widest range of political and other perspectives. The national press tends to be more liberal. While audiences are on the decline, they all seem to be in a sustainable position.
In the UK, television is heavily regulated, with the preeminent and impartial PBS BBC. However, the national press is largely owned by conservative supporters. Unfortunately, the control instincts of our current government have made the BBC more intimidated than ever.
For the press, the strong and patriarchal national actors are in great shape. But a lot of small titles struggle. The staff are made redundant. The titles close. A major British publisher, Johnston Press, went bankrupt to be sold twice, for scrap. Other less important but more deserving publishers have simply disappeared. This tsunami is on the rise.
But a cohort of refreshing new media is emerging. Recently, I undertook a brief survey of the media scene in Edinburgh, Scotland, a city similar in size and character to Kansas City. The study found:
- No local or native Scottish TV channels.
- About 12 to 15 indigenous and national radio stations.
- Fifteen dailies, mainly based in London.
- A dozen major magazines covering politics, law, finance and the arts.
- Over a dozen community information services.
- Forty-five community boards providing newsletters and websites of varying quality.
- Maybe 20-30 hyperlocal signs targeting niche interest groups.
As we move forward, here is a possible scenario that could help our industry as a whole. Governments claim to be in favor of revitalizing quality journalism, but this should not be direct funding for individual publishers, therefore:
- There has to be a debate / research on what society needs and wants to hear from, both in conceptual and material forms. It must involve all the threads of society, including the growing mass of the poor and excluded.
- One area in which governments can provide financial and structural support is the creation of a mechanism that underpins the strategic and operational means to build this new concept of information.
- One vision of this concept is the creation of a two-level structure: a council made up of representatives of the social elements who will benefit most from a stronger media presence; and an organization to lead this revolution in the news, in terms of revenue generation, training, access to advanced technology and representation with stakeholders.
Which brings me back to John Newby. Having not met John since that conference in 2005, I only had to read the name of his weekly column, “Building Main Street – not Wall Street” to know that we are staying on the same page.
Personally, I can’t remember a time when I was 64 when we faced so many challenges in our daily lives. Many of them are encouraging this new rise in political extremism. An independent and strong Fourth Estate is essential, but while many publishers can barely survive, society cannot afford the media to fail.
Jim Chisholm has advised newspaper publishers and related organizations in over 50 countries, including North America. These days he resides in Scotland and can be contacted at [email protected]