Preston: Owners are to blame for press decline, not the net

Here’s the second report I wrote for Press Gazette from the Future of Newspapers conference last week. The version which appeared in Press Gazette is here; the original is below:  

Former Guardian editor Peter Preston has said that owners who are “giving up the ghost” must take some responsibility for the decline of newspapers.

Preston, speaking at the Future of Newspapers conference in Cardiff, said: “The internet may be the deliverer of the coup de grace but it is not to blame for the decline of newspapers.”

Instead, he blamed “inertia, fatalism, and cost-cutting,” combined with social changes.

“The risk is that we spend so much time discussing the dangers and not lifting our eyes to see round the corner. There’s a danger in introversion. Introversion means we don’t notice the world changing around us until it’s too late. Introversion means a fatal lack of communication in a communications business, and a refusal to make fresh connections or form new alliances. Introversion is a kind of stasis.”

Newspapers like the London Evening News and Star were killed off long before the rise of the internet, he said, by changes in society ranging from the changing nature of city centres and declining use of public transport, to people no longer working set hours and working from home.

“The reasons for buying hugely diminished. Life changed but the newspapers didn’t.”

Now, following a ‘golden era’ where “The only thing better than buying a newspaper was selling one,” profits are falling and newspaper chains are struggling to sell off their titles.

“In terms of profits, they’ve lost their allure; and in terms of influence many owners now shun the limelight. It’s neither a particularly glamorous nor lucrative game.”

The entry of freesheets into the market has also been a major factor in declining print circulations, he said.
“The London Paper is causing problems to the Sun; London Lite is causing problems to the Mail. Each is depressing profits on the house that publishes it.

“What kind of introversion commits editors to these prospects? Have evening newspapers fought back with investment? Did the Evening Standard set up satellites? London is the size of Austria, remember.”
Newspapers should be addressing the challenges head-on, he said. “The more tracks you’ve made in addressing the future, the more chance of success. But don’t believe you’ve ‘done it’ and stop.

“You are as good as your last idea or implementation, and others can have a good idea.

“The difficulty is seeing where the technology is going to be in ten years time. At the moment most current vision is about where the internet is, and where print is – but both are uncertain. I can rap about what the internet might be like in ten years’ time – but I have no idea what ownership ten years in the future might be. It may be smaller chains, and more local chains.”

A lack of effective strategies is compounded, Preston argues, by a lack of quality in management. “You need to get good people in journalism – and that’s difficult when you’re asking graduates to work for two years on £13,500. You have to think about how you attract not just good quality journalists but good quality managers for the next twenty to thirty years.”

But at the same time, Preston said, “If we wanted a good story to tell, we could have one. If circulations of free papers were counted, there would be no decline at all. There has been a 2.3 percent rise in the circulations of newspapers globally in the last year; revenues are up 3.7%. Circulations are up 12% if you include free papers.”

“It’s a fantastically interesting time to be involved in the news industry.”

11 thoughts on “Preston: Owners are to blame for press decline, not the net

  1. Richard McDonough

    There are many fewer customers for bridles than in the early 20th century. The decline in that business was not the fault of the bridle makers or sellers, but a result of a shrinking marketplace due to the advent of the internal combustion engine used to drive four wheeeled (and some three-wheeled) vehicles.

    Markets change and marketers must adapt.

    The business has been piggishly profitable until recently, and with the advent of the internet and the sophistication of the technology around it, many have become dependent on it (not a bad thing) and television (a very bad thing) for news and information.

    With the newspaper business having been, by and large, taken over by corporations with no essential interest in the news business, per se, but quite attracted by the large profits available, the change in the size of circulation and thus profits, have soured their distended bellies. Given their business model, they shrink staff to save money, second guess the readers by feeding them lighter fare and pap, and in the process alienate the folks who love print, who love good journalism; which, of course, compounds the “problem.”

    If properly priced and made available for purchase and management by people actually devoted to print journalism, good profits could be made, good journalists could be employed, and good readers could be satisfied..

    None of this will happen, of course, as the handbasket containing this world is very much on its way to its destination. Bring a fan.

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