Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Ex-newspaper chief Chris Oakley: 'Monty's editor-less robots' won't save local journalism

Former regional newspaper editor and chief executive Chris Oakley warns in the updated edition of What Do We Mean By Local? of a "Kafkaesque nightmare vision – citizens with no local pub, no local post office, no local newspaper, no knowledge, no informed opinion on anything that should matter to them or their families.  Times are always changing, but if good men and women - and good journalists - can do nothing then change can destroy rather than create progress."

He writes: "Imagine: your circulation is up, one of just 13 out of the 373 paid weeklies in the country … and that’s despite a 35p cover price rise to 90p. What’s more, your  title turns a profit. As editor, your duty is clear. It is time to call the editorial, circulation and ad sales teams together, crack a few celebratory bottles on the company and wait for the congratulatory phone call from the boss.

The phone rings all right … and you’re fired. Well, not quite. In these enlightened days, you are being considered for redundancy and during a period of consultation every effort will be made to explore a number of potentially suitable options for you. But, actually, your name is on the list and, in reality, that is that. Even a petition by Press Gazette and a Facebook campaign by local readers, advertisers and national celebrities cannot save you.

Now what management would get rid of a successful editor, alienate the customers who make the newspaper profitable and hand the job to a part-time editor commuting 20 miles from another publishing centre two days a week?

The answer is a management who cannot put their customers first, who cannot even afford to keep successful staff but are compelled to focus on only one priority – paying down the company’s bank debt.

The Decline Quickens

Just over a year ago, I contributed a chapter, The Men Who Killed the Regional Newspaper Industry, to John Mair’s book What Do We Mean by Local? (2012). In the months since then, the decline of the established regional press has quickened.

The average fall in the sale of paid weekly and daily regional newspapers in the most recent six-monthly Audit Bureau of Circulation figures  (December 2012) was 6.4 per cent. That figure is distorted by titles which have merged circulation areas or gone part-free. More than 15 of the 77 paid daily titles lost more than 15 per cent of their sales and almost 20 paid weeklies lost more than 20 per cent.

Yet the decision by Johnston Press to make Jon Stokoe, one of its most successful weekly editors, redundant was not perverse; it was inevitable. Stokoe  has lived in Whitby for more than 30 years. He is a presence in the town, giving after-dinner speeches, handing out trophies, giving careers guidance in schools as well as producing his newspaper, feeding its website, keeping a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

It is a model that worked long before life went online and, judging by his rising sales figures and those of editors like him, it still works. But that is immaterial. Ashley Highfield, the chief executive of Johnston Press, inherited a mountain of debt. He simply cannot afford to have an editor, however successful, at every one of his titles. In total, a quarter of Johnston Press’s 5,000 staff were made redundant last year. The company may have made an operating profit of £57 million in 2012 at a remarkable 17 per cent margin, but the group’s total turnover, down by 12 per cent to £328 million, did not  quite match its debts and the cost of persuading the banks to renew those loans.

Interest on the debt, incidentally, is 10.5 per cent, more than £30 million a year, reflecting the banks’ scepticism about whether those debts will ever be repaid. Highfield must hit fixed repayment targets to avoid an even more penal interest rate and, at best, to stand a chance of negotiating more favourable terms on the outstanding debt.

To do this, he intends to achieve a profit margin of more than 30 per cent, an objective in the present climate and given the cost reduction necessary about as likely as Del Boy making good on his perennial promise: ‘This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires.’

The City jury remains as sceptical as the banks. Although the share price has risen with the markets to around 17p, it is a far cry from the £4 plus of five years ago, and values the company at £120 million, just over a third of its debts.

A Future Without Editors

Johnston Press is not alone. Trinity and Newsquest face similar pressures, the former from its bank debt, the latter from its hard-pressed US parent company. And then there are the new big boys on the block, Local World. In November 2012, David Montgomery, the chairman of this combination of Northcliffe’s 100-plus titles and Yattendon’s 25 titles, outlined his vision for the future of journalism in this regional group, now the third biggest with a 20 per cent share of the market.

Editors, he said, were pretty well redundant, sub-editors were a thing of the past, journalists were actually content managers, manipulating material submitted by the community for transmission in print, online, by mobile. He told MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee: ‘We will have to harvest content and publish it without human interface. Journalists collecting stories one by one are hugely unproductive.’

Since then, Montgomery has rowed back from this vision of an army of robots processing content fed to them free of the costs which inevitably accompany professionally researched and produced stories … but not by much.

He told Press Gazette: ‘Local journalism is moving more towards self-publishing – by journalists and by an increasing number of self-serve contributors. Journalists will not be going through antiquated editing processes in future, they will be publishing directly on to different platforms.’

Content created by journalists and by those Montgomery terms ‘others’ would not be edited. He sees journalists as ‘generators of content, managers of content and publishers of content without intervention from their colleagues or senior editors.

All journalists will be editors in their own right’. Since then Local World has terminated the contracts of the 25 freelance journalists running their hyperlocal sites relying, instead, on user-generated content, and closed the weekly Loughborough Mercury and Bedford Midweek, both launched last year. Asked about the future of face-to-face interviews, investigations and exclusive stories, Montgomery points to the example of a story, published in Local World’s North Devon Journal which he says went global.

It was about WI members who dressed as pirates to hear a speaker who had been held hostage in Somalia and was ‘harvested’ from a report sent in by the WI. Of course, it is an amusing local story that in days gone by would have been followed up by the nationals and is now sent global by online publishers desperate for free and harmless content. But if Montgomery truly believes this is a great example of his vision for the future, pity the poor readers of Local World titles, in print and online.

It’s Free but is it True?

An entire chapter could be devoted to discussing the flaws in his vision. Without editors how will any consistent standards or policies be implemented across the various media? How will this submitted content be verified? Without verification how can it be trusted? Will contributors really be prepared to provide free material, day in and day out? Special interest groups may do so, but who will provide the broader picture? Who will cover local courts and councils and be the impartial watchdog of the community? Will any serious attempt be made to cover those local disputes and protests which can be fraught with legal pitfalls?

Yet Local World is not alone in this stampede to irrelevance. Johnston Press has a target for 50 per cent of all its content to be contributed free by community correspondents. Trinity has a similar policy. Of course, local readers must be involved in the creation of their community’s newspaper, in print or online; they always have been. But it is unrealistic to expect from them the wideranging, impartial coverage trained journalists should provide.

In the United States, newspapers soon found that the volume of free content contributed by the community for print and online publication by was insufficient. To fill the gap, agencies sprang up offering cheap hyperlocal content – basically press releases lightly and often badly re-written by workers based in the Philippines … workers who not only never set foot in the community the agencies pretend to serve; they never even set foot in the country.

A study by the Annenberg Centre for the Digital Future, Is America at a Digital Turning Point (2012), found that more than 60 per cent of users believe online sites lack credibility and that this percentage is rising sharply. Without credibility, such online news sites and their print twins have nothing worthwhile to offer.

Maximum Profit and Slow Liquidation

In Philip Meyer’s book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age (2004), he says that ‘community influence is a paper’s most important product’. The foundation for that influence is credibility. Journalists understand that but it appears to have no place in the brave new Local World vision or that of other major regional publishers.

Meyer goes on to write of American proprietors unable to sell their declining businesses who embarked on what he terms ‘the slow liquidation’ of their newspapers by charging more and giving readers less. This allows them to siphon off maximum profits in the short term at the expense of the newspaper’s standing in the community and at the cost of losing readers and advertisers.

Meyer adds this may be presented as ‘temporary economising to be reversed once business conditions improve or even the exploration of a new business model … but don’t be fooled’. Slow liquidation is precisely the policy being followed by major regional groups here.

Deloitte’s latest Media Consumer Survey (June 2013) has particularly bad news for regional dailies. Only 39 per cent of newspaper readers now say print is their preferred way of reading their favourite daily title, a staggering reduction from 79 per cent the previous year, but settling down with a weekly paper still has a more enduring appeal.

The growth in online readers, more and more often using mobile platforms, offers some encouragement for newspaper publishers but it is far from certain that the cost of investment required to compete online can be justified by the revenue it will generate. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Media and Entertainment Survey 2013-2017 states that, while online newspaper revenues are growing, they are expected to account for only 11 per cent of total revenue by 2017.

Success in a Desolate Landscape

It is tempting to despair of the future for regional journalism, but there are faint rays of hope. More than 80 new local print titles have been launched in the UK since 2008. One success story is that of Richard Coulter, a former assistant editor of the Bristol evening paper who grew tired of Northcliffe’s continual editorial cuts and left to set up his own monthly news magazine in the suburb of Filton.

The Filton Voice was profitable from its first issue, now has sister titles in two other Bristol suburbs and Richard hopes to launch four more titles this summer. The plan then is to support other publishers in expanding the concept  beyond the Bristol area. John Stokoe may no longer be the Whitby Gazette Editor but he, too, is back in local journalism as a columnist on the newly launched 96- page Whitby Mag and as a sub-editor – perhaps THE sub-editor – for Local World.

In the U.S. there are student-run newspapers, supported by universities, filling the void left by traditional media. Closer to home, Cardiff University has set up a centre for community journalism to build a network of local news websites and to turn them into sustainable businesses. Students on the university’s media courses will staff them.

Coventry University has launched an online newspaper for the centre of its city and is now exploring ways to turn this into a commercial venture. More universities should develop such initiatives. Law faculties offer a probono legal service to help those who cannot afford legal advice and to give their students real case experience. Media students would gain invaluable practical knowledge producing a monthly newspaper, in print, online or both, as a service to their community.

However, even those who have launched titles to meet the demands of local communities would admit they have a desperately long way to go and lack the financial resources to provide the coverage given by the traditional local weekly or daily.

Another route forward for regional publishing may be through the growth of ‘philanthro-journalism’, not-for-profit operations funded by individual donors or charities. In the US, foundations have donated at least $250 million to nonprofit journalism in the last decade. A high profile example is Pro-Publica, set up in 2008 and the winner of two Pulitzer prizes. Like most such organisations, Pro-Publica gives its content away, often to cash-strapped newspapers whose reporters use the leads and legwork to develop local investigations.

In Britain, such donor-supported journalism has been hampered by the difficulty in securing charitable status and the tax benefits to donors that go with it. In contrast, the US authorities grant tax exemptions for non-profit journalism.

Neil Fowler, a former editor and associate of Nuffield College, Oxford, suggested last year that the government might help by encouraging the endangered big groups to negotiate an orderly default on their debts with the titles sold to local businessmen or communities. Since then, Lloyds has gone down this route by writing off the £25 million debts of the Dunfermline Free Press group to allow a management buy-out to go ahead in return for a 90 per cent shareholding in the company. But while the big groups stagger on, and with zombie publishers paying the banks’ exorbitant interest rates, the price of default would be high and many larger titles are too damaged to attract buyers.

The Legacy of Leveson

Yet there can scarcely have been a time when we have needed more a robust, inquiring local media than in the post-Leveson shambles. The apparent assumption by Lord Justice Leveson that arms of the state can be trusted to regulate themselves in the public good, as unworldly as it is unrealistic, is already having a pernicious effect. Police officers have been arrested simply for talking to journalists and one, April Casburn, has been jailed for raising legitimate concerns that anti-terrorism resources were being wasted on celebrity hacking inquiries.

Secret arrests, with those held not being named, are increasingly frequent. Whistleblowers, in the health service and other public sectors, have their careers trashed and are forced out with gagging orders underpinned by financial penalties for talking to the press. I have no doubt that from government to council chamber, from neglectful NHS hospital to avaricious drug company, from expense-fiddling and lobby-fee-trousering MP to greedy banker, it would be blissful if a press, cowed or shackled as a result of Leveson or by self-inflicted commercial constraints, is prevented from shining a light into the dark corners that those with power would prefer to remain un-illuminated.

We already have almost 60 journalists whose homes have been ransacked by police, whose most personal belongings are retained by the authorities, many of whom have been remanded on bail without charge for longer than terrorism suspects – all without a squeak of protest from the Establishment or, for that matter, from human rights groups. Yet there have been no arrests of those in blue-chip companies and law firms who, it transpires, used phone and computer hackers more than the media.

Can Local Newspapers still Make a Difference?

Those who seek to shrug off the precipitous decline of the regional press say readers now have access to more and more sources of news and comment – but, as the Annenberg Centre’s research shows, users may read but trust little of the content which is simply recycled unverified from one medium to another.

A strong, independent regional press has always played the critical role in every journalist’s mission to hold those in authority to account and to tell readers what they need and ought to know but its influence is waning, diminished by the inevitable dumbing down that an avalanche of unedited contributor content brings.

Are we content for the banal, superficial triteness of social media and the unverified guesswork of Wikipedia to inform the shallow thinking and short attention span of the next generation? It is a Kafkaesque nightmare vision – citizens with no local pub, no local post office, no local newspaper, no knowledge, no informed opinion on anything that should matter to them or their families. Times are always changing, but if good men and women - and good journalists - can do nothing then change can destroy rather than create progress.

It was almost always the local newspaper story, the call from a whistleblower to a reporter on the local paper that lead to the exposure of a national scandal.

The Wolverhampton-based Express and Star first exposed the conspiracy of shameful silence at Stafford Hospital where 1,000 patients died through negligence or ill-treatment. Reporter Shaun Lintern, who covered the story for almost five years but is one of the thousands of journalists no longer working in the regional press, said: ‘If my newspaper had not existed, those families had nowhere else to get their voice heard. I believe we made a difference for them.’ But he went on to say the newspaper could no longer investigate such a story because of staffing cuts, adding: ‘If we are not going to resource stories like this, what kind of news coverage are we giving to our readers?’

It’s not a question those who run today’s major regional newspaper groups want to address or, indeed, that those groups are financially capable of addressing. It’s not a question that those who control the levers of power want to hear when diminishing scrutiny enables them to sleep easier in their beds. But it is a question that should concern every individual.

Where will they turn when their elderly relative is mistreated in hospital, when they fear their daughter is being groomed by a local gang, when social services exceed their powers to take away their child or fail to act on a tip-off about abuse, when police ignore the cries for help from a persecuted teenager, when out-of-hours medical care collapses?

One thing is certain. Monty’s editor-less robots won’t be any help."

  • Chris Oakley is the former editor of ther Liverpool Echo who went on to lead the £125 million management buy-out of the Birmingham Post and Mail. Oakley dropped out of sixth form to join his local newspaper as a trainee reporter, earning three guineas a week, less ten shillings for his typewriter. He is a past president of the Newspaper Society and Guild of British Newspaper Editors (now the Society of Editors). Oakley chairs a print and online regional business publishing and event company, an ecommerce digital agency and is financial trustee of the charity Television for the Environment which makes international documentaries and social media films.
  • What do we mean by local? The rise, fall and possible rise again of local journalism edited by John Mair, Richard Lance Keeble with Neil Fowler, published by Abramis on September 1, 2013. ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0. Price £19.95 or as a special offer to readers of this blog £15.00 from richard@arimapublishing.co.uk.
Other extracts from What do we mean by local?

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