From hack to flack as newspapers burn

newspapersTen years at a large print media company, five years as a freelancer – what I’ve gleaned about the future of print

Back in 2008 and 2009, when I was a permanent employee of a large Australian media company, one of our office parlour games was to speculate on how far off (actually how close) the day was when the company would no longer print a daily newspaper.

Our usual guess was as soon as 2015, and definitely no later than 2020; neither was far enough away for any of us to have a hope of seeing our working lives out with ink-stained fingers.

We were mere section-level editors and subs, with no special insight into the management or finances of the company, but we had a good sense of where the world was headed. It was obvious.

No one in any position of authority or control at the company in those days would say out loud that print newspapers would soon cease to exist: we were “transitioning” to a digital business, not talking about the death of print. The daily print newspaper would become something else.

In the decade I worked there, the company passed up the opportunity to buy a car sales website, a job ad website and a real estate website. Those websites are now worth more than the print media company, and have swallowed its classified advertising business.

At the same time, the transitioning-to-digital company bought a radio network and a rural newspaper business, and built a large and expensive print facility.

(Aside: the competing job website the print media company set up has just delivered me a job under the search terms “journalism and copywriting, Melbourne metro”. The job? Typist, for $20 an hour. Sure, journalists can type …)

When I started there in the late 1990s, the company’s share price was around $5; when I left, it was in the vicinity of 50 to 60 cents: not joining the employee share purchase program, something I decided on ideological grounds, turned out to be a good call.

Tech mag crashes

In early 2002 we were called into the big boss’s office. The magazine we worked on – a monthly free insert on digital culture aimed at under-30s – was being killed. The edition we were sending to the printer would be the last – ad revenue was almost non-existent, mainly because the advertisers knew that the under-30s the magazine targeted didn’t read it; they didn’t even read the newspaper it was wrapped in.

We waited for the logical sequitur: I’m afraid we’ll have to let you all go. There will be the usual redundancy packages etc. HR will work out your figures for you.

It didn’t come. Instead: We’ll find something else for you to do. The MBA’s reading this will choke on their breakfasts. The magazine was being killed? So what use would the company have for the editor, the subeditor, the designer and the staff writer who produced it? That’s four numbers – as they called permanent employees – that could be cut right there.

But we muddled along in the hope that something – paywalls, tablets, a new business model – would turn up, and we were grateful to still have jobs.

Staff from axed projects were frequently redeployed to non-jobs; editors were especially prey to this: they could be made “editor” of some process or idea and become another layer of oversight, without really doing very much. We survivors from the tech mag crash spent months doing almost nothing.

Fire the journalists to save the newspaper

Since I left, at the tail end of one of the big redundancy drives in 2008 and 2009, things have got worse. Something like 1200 journalists lost their jobs in the two big print media companies in 2012 – 15 per cent of the workforce.

The staff purges have continued, and now include the company vacating editorial territory that it owns by killing off most of its food guides (I lost a big chunk of my freelance income in that one. Strike two).

The current line on the future of the company’s print newspapers is this: “In the foreseeable future they are improving their position as mastheads,” the CEO told a recent business lunch in Melbourne.

From the point of view of someone who has seen projects killed, been made redundant (strike one) and lost several contract-editing jobs, the “transition to digital” looks like pilots attempting to crash-land a burning aircraft and walk away from the wreckage.

Digital first: sell websites, buy radio

The company recorded a profit this year, partly by selling off one of its online businesses: a bit like a conservative government balancing the books by selling public assets, except worse, if you think online is the future.

Things aren’t any better at the competing print media company. Recent reports have its main broadsheet losing $100 million in the past three years; circulation is falling, but revenue from sales has been kept stable by raising the cover price. That looks like a death-spiral strategy.

The real problem is this: newspaper advertising revenue in Australia has declined by 39 per cent since 2010; print advertising revenue generally fell 16.9 per cent in the year to June 2014. At the same time, digital advertising spending has risen 20 per cent in the year to June and almost doubled in the past three years.

Media analyst Clay Shirky quotes The New York Times as recently claiming “the future of print remains unclear.”

His response?

 

‘The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.’

 

This kind of rhetoric is what newspaper executives the world over use to hide – or hide from – reality. The future of print is very clear, and it’s also very short.

Shirky charts the collapse of newspaper ad revenue in the United States, where many print titles are carried financially by their Sunday editions, which feature retail and insert ads. He writes:

 

‘Those advertisers already have one foot out the door, having abandoned the idea that ads have to be printed inside the paper to reach their audience. CVS and Best Buy have so little connection to the papers they ride along with that they don’t even bother printing the addresses of their local outlets. (You can always find that information online.) From the advertiser’s point of view, the nation’s newspapers have become little more than a blue-bag delivery service, with a horoscope and enough local sports inside to get people to open the bag.’

 

So what will happen to all the journalists? Shirky says they had better retrain quickly, especially in the field of data journalism: turning the web’s mess of information into useable news will be the way of the future.

Take a position: the PR flack future

A couple of months ago a friend who works for a small advertising agency roped me in to quote on a job he was chasing, producing a publication for the elderly. The publisher would be a government department, and the content would be a mix of long and short magazine-style stories about health and wellbeing. My writing skills would be useful in producing government lifestyle and health messages disguised as ‘content’. Print was a handy format for the audience: the old people still read stuff on paper apparently (they should have been producing it for Kindle).

The relationship to the publisher would also be straightforward: write the stories we ask you to write, please, with the conclusions we want you to arrive at. There would be no messy bullshit about editorial independence, and no ‘wall’ between the editorial (content) and the commercial (who was paying for it) sides of the undertaking. In a way, it would be a more honest transaction than the transaction print (and other commercial media) journalists undertake most working days: in commercial media, the content is now just wrapping for the (dwindling) advertising, a loss leader for the classifieds, and we all know it. The elderly person’s health and wellbeing magazine would be all ‘content’.

Then there was the job advertised a couple of weeks ago: a large municipal authority was seeking a ‘corporate writer’ to produce a magazine for residents of the municipality. The job description indicated that someone with a mix of print and online media experience who had also done corporate writing would fit the bill. The output would be a form of journalism, but not really in the service of news: it would be more about reminding the residents of the municipality that it was a good place to live, and persuading them that the local government was responsible for this.

If journalists (hacks) think of themselves as workers who produce information that is not commercially motivated, and the PR and marketing and media people (flacks) as workers who produce messages with commercial or political or other utilitarian motivation, it looks like most hacks will end up as flacks: as workers who produce information designed to persuade more than inform.

A university research project is tracking what happens to journalists who are made redundant from (mostly print) media jobs: of 95 who left jobs in 2012 who took part in the research, 17 ended up with jobs at other ‘legacy’ media, 16 in online media, and 18 in PR/media officer/comms type roles. (Fourteen reported that they were working at universities, presumably training the next generation of, um, journalists.)

A recent study at Fordham University found that, with lay-offs of journalists in the US running at 1000 a month in 2008 and 2009, the proportion of PR professionals to journalists had risen from 1.2/1 in 1980 to 4/1 in 2010: four flacks for every hack.

The competing broadsheet – the one that has lost $100 million these past three years – has transformed itself almost entirely into a nest of flacks. It exists (despite the losses, the declining circulation and the collapsing ad revenue) at the whim of an ageing mogul, and seems to have the sole purpose of carrying out his persuasions in the guise of providing ‘news’. And the flacks there are well paid, too: much more than other newspaper people, on average, in this country. I guess they think it’s worth it.

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