Sunday, September 25, 2011

Newspaper cheese, from a habit into a hobby

News Letter editor Darwin Templeton was in conversation with William Crawley on Friday at lunchtime, standing in for Malachi O’Doherty. Appointed as the BBC’s Louis MacNeice Writer in Residence at Queen’s University Belfast, Malachi has been holding a series of public discussions with (mostly) local senior media representatives.

I’m sure Malachi will put the full audio from the event on his blog over the next week or so.

Darwin described his years working in as a correspondent for The Sun in Northern Ireland, a spell that included coverage of the Omagh bombing, as well as several spells at the Belfast Telegraph.

He described the News Letter readership as “conservative” and explained how he tells staff to imagine they are writing for “their Granny in Cullybackey”. He fondly joked that he could “just predict the backlash if I started mucking about with Farming Life” – the News Letter’s very successful Saturday supplement.

Darwin Templeton was acting editor of UTV insight when he was appointed as editor of the News Letter in the summer of 2006. And it is back to UTV that Darwin will be heading this autumn, returning as UTV’s News Editor.

I note that twenty five years ago, 24 hour news TV channels didn’t exist in the UK or Ireland. News websites didn’t exist. CEEFAX was about the only popular news service that could trump the next edition of a newspaper.

Newspaper readers increasingly scan through their chosen paper(s), occasionally stopping to read ever-shorter articles that précis events but avoid going into great detail. Yes, you too! As readership levels fall, so too does the revenue brought in by newspaper advertising, which leads to staff cuts, and papers bulking up their contents with wire feeds.

Asked about his prediction for the newspaper industry, Darwin Templeton acknowledged that his forecast was vague:

“There will be fewer newspapers in ten years time, and they’ll come out less frequently.”

It would be increasingly hard work, six days a week “telling readers something they already know”.

Roy Greenslade blogged about this very topic on Saturday, quoting from an article well worth reading in full by Ian Jack in Saturday’s Guardian.

Printed newspapers are shedding readers much faster than Greenland is losing ice, even if you take the Times Atlas's controversial (now withdrawn) estimate of Arctic shrinkage … This is a crisis. Newspapers need revenue, and their income still comes overwhelmingly from their printed rather than digital editions; a ratio of 80/20 in the Guardian's case …

A newspaper can cut its costs, as the Guardian has done, and/or it can put its cover price up, as the Guardian did this week; and/or it can build a paywall around its digital content, as the Guardian has resisted. But price rises are only slightly more swings than roundabouts – you gain more per copy but tend to sell fewer papers – and the commercial benefit of paywalls has still to be demonstrated.

Ian Jack suggested that the cost of the pooled newspaper supply chain that distributes papers from printing presses to newsagents would rise fatally if one big publisher – eg, News International – withdrew.

In newspaper offices, dark talk is common: by 2015 printed versions of the dailies might appear only once or twice a week, with a circulation restricted to London and perhaps a few other big cities.

He cites New York Times media columnist David Carr who recently predicted that his own paper in five years’ time would still be available in print, but only as “luxury product gorgeous to behold” and not in news-stands.

The eventual destination of the printed newspaper, then, looks likely to be the equivalent of the artisanal cheese.

He notes prior art when “from 1917 to 1969 the Times printed a special edition on heavier paper for the royal household”.

Nobody will pick them from the doormat wondering how the world has changed from the day before. They will be badges, evidence of their readers' cultural or political tastes, with an artisanal-cheese kind of price that turns them from a habit into a hobby.

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