The News of the World closure may have been primarily intended to create a firewall for the storm threatening to envelop News Corp. It also, though, throws an interesting light on the fight by UK newspapers to survive in the era of always-on news.
Yesterday’s punch-the-air televised exit of News of the World journalists who had just completed the last edition of what has long been the UK’s largest circulation newspaper told another story. There were: 200+ journalists on this weekly newspaper. Echoing in their ears were the rumours that Rupert Murdoch (down and stunned but not yet out) is planning a seventh day edition of The Sun. This “new” paper would (surprise) require only of a small number of additional journalists – if Murdoch dares launch it. But the numbers anyway do tell the story.
Some remember the hysterical screams when The Independent hatched plans to reduce to “only 400” the number of journalists it employed in a vain bid to become profitable. Today, that elusive search for profitability continues, even with the paper employing fewer than half the journalists it once did.
Large teams of journalists
Most of the UK’s daily newspapers are unprofitable. Many of them still employ 300-500 journalists. Those that don’t (the Daily Mirror and Daily Express, for example) happen to be run by magazine people used to making profits with much smaller teams. The Independent is just trying to survive, albeit now with the help of oodles of roubles.
Most national dailies are sniffy, to say the least, about the “need” to have these traditionally large teams of journalists. One prominent editor was stunned recently to be confronted by a recent recruit from a cost-conscious and fast-growing online business, who wanted to know “what do all these people here do?” He simply couldn’t understand why there were so many journalists.
The true story has a similar ring to the one about a director of UK magazine monolith IPC,visiting the New York headquarters of Time Inc after IPC had been acquired by Time (for price that could today make you die laughing). The sparky English publisher asked one of his new bosses why the US equivalent of IPC’s gossip magazine (both then leaders in their respective markets) had at least TEN TIMES the staffing. The US publisher was unphased and said that was because his magazine made squillions of profit. That was then.
And that is the story. Staffing and other costs on many long-established newspapers and magazines reflect a historic view of reader requirements – and profits. The fact is that the over-blown and believe-your-own-publicity UK daily newspaper market has been in decline since the 1950s. The peak for circulations was actually 55 years ago, so fundamental change is errr long overdue. But what change, when and how?
What to do right now?
The point is that, in the long run, you can believe in the primacy of online information. But the problem is now. Most UK newspaper circulations are gravitational, save for expensive promotions to fool advertisers and editors themselves into believing otherwise. So, many companies are fast approaching the worst of all worlds: when hard copy newspapers tip over from occasional profitability into permanent loss – at the same time as online is still a long way from profit, and with traditional costs piled high against the hard copy product.
It reinforces the basic view that, in very many cases, the only possible winners in the news business will be new-wave digital companies with costs based on modern realities rather than halcyon days – OR traditional companies that heed the lessons and establish quite separate and self-standing modern businesses that they can allow to compete with – and eventually kill – their treasured legacy businesses.
So, when next you hear a newspaper journalist being sniffy about, say, the Huffington Post (an online ‘aggregator’ mostly of other people’s news but with a flair for presentation), you can wonder whether the condescension is another sign of an industry that suffers from: a sense of entitlement, a glorious past, and the kind of arrogance that has proved to be a strand of the corruption affecting News Corp in the UK. Their time is passing.
Nobody really doubts that the future of news (as much else) belongs to people and companies who can adapt to shifting consumer needs, to new technologies and to the changed economics of turbulent times. Anyone who thinks they can just tweak their long-standing, legacy businesses to stay in the game is smoking something.