Good news for the newspapers — except Fleet Street

This is the crunching age of international league tables, with their crunchy imperatives to buck up, cut back and consume large doses of the purgative of the day (as prescribed by the IMF, the ECB, the OECD or whoever). Greece, Spain, Portugal, Britain … we’re all sinking ships, according to legions of newspaper pundits, the People Who Know. But what happens when one of these global monitors — the OECD — swivels round and looks at the state of journalism itself? Prepare to sit rather uncomfortably.

An OECD working party produced a thumping report on newspaper futures last week that made big headlines in America. US circulations falling like a stone (only 30% saying they read a paper the previous day). Sales and advertising revenue down a walloping 30% in two years. Cue much familiar transatlantic wailing. So cue contrapuntal UK grins, plus smug lectures on the competitive wonders of our own fantastic press?

Forget it. Cue white-faced gloom. In virtually every category, Britain fared second worst among all the OECD’s 31 member countries. The publishing market — turnover via sales and ads — had slipped 21% between 2007 and 2009, worse than Greece. Projected print advertising falls, at 26%, were the steepest in Europe. Only 33 British citizens out of 100 claimed to have read a paper recently — as opposed to 94% in Japan and 82% in Norway. There’s no hiding the harsh truth, then. Something quite unconnected with Labour’s legacy, banking perfidy and the rest is going wrong. Something direly needs to be done.

Of course you can wheel in with explanations and excuses on tap. Circulation figures in the UK made artificially worse by quality newspapers hacking away at bulk sale giveaways — accounting for maybe half the published loss. A particularly deep UK recession that exaggerates the size of the slide. A rampant internet news sector taking its toll of inky words on newsprint. Some of that is valid, to be sure: yet it only goes part of the way.

Rising cover prices
The admirable analyst Jim Chisholm finds British cover prices spurting ahead of the rest of Europe in the latter part of the noughties, bringing precipitate drops in circulation but, more lethally, costing advertising revenues too. The more you bunged up the price, barely looking beyond your balance sheet navel, the more advertising took a cold bath as well. There’s a relationship between sales and ads you may wish didn’t exist if you’re a newspaper finance director: but it does.

And the relationship you believe may exist, the one between print news and news via online websites? The UK has one of the swiftest growing digital advertising environments in the world. If online news is the iPadded future for newspapers, then the national lead in electronic information could be future strength, explaining present weakness.

Except that, as yet, it’s difficult to make that correlation work. The countries where online newspaper website consumption is highest — Korea, Norway, Iceland, Japan — outscore Britain almost two to one and fare much better at protecting print circulation as well. Austria, pretty close to the UK in news site usage, lost a mere 2% of publishing turnover in the two years where the UK saw 21% go.

Here’s a hint in these statistics — the sort of people who get their news online are also the sort of people who buy print newspapers. It’s not one or the other; it’s often both. And nothing they find prompts the OECD researchers to conclude that print papers have a doomed, finite future.

Poor at connecting to new readers
Well, of course, international forecasters can be wrong. But a few nagging conclusions about our Fleet Street and regional press won’t go away. In the broad, the UK is a long way behind the US, and other nations as well, in increasing digital advertising. And in the main, intense, introverted competition stops industry-wide thinking and cooperation. Compare places such as Norway and Sweden, which do better on every count.

Worse, the UK is particularly poor at connecting with new, young readers — who may prefer news on the net, but often choose no news at all. We fulminate about immigration, but don’t provide a service to meet their different needs. We tell ourselves that Fleet Street knows best, but change painfully little in style or range as the crisis bites.

There now: this is one legacy you can’t blame Gordon Brown for. And a call to action where short-term thinking may be the short end of everything. –

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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