Why I won't be a newspaper journalist on January 1

  • This was originally published on my blog for The Drum on December 23, 2009

On New Year's Day 2010, I will for the first time in 25 years not be employed by a newspaper publisher.

No-one is more surprised than me that for a quarter of a century I've made a living variously as a reporter, sub editor, deputy editor, editor, editorial director, publishing director and assistant managing director at various newspaper gigs around the UK.

In other words, it's about bloody time I got myself a proper job.

I've used that phrase many times over the years, as it really has been a career during which I've regularly pinched myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming: "Someone's actually paying me to do this!". Whether it was launching a tits-and-bums Sunday paper in Carlisle (it didn't last, since you ask) or interviewing an industry mogul in Mumbai for the Birmingham Post, the fresh challenges and opportunities that came in every one of those 25 years amount to a lifetime of experience for which I will be eternally grateful.

But of late, those challenges have been less about about the craft of journalism and more about its very business model - and ultimately its survival.

I think I've played a part in helping the industry respond to these challenges, and what the team has achieved at the Birmingham Post may well provide part of the survival template for other newspapers.

But I've decided to get out, not because I think there's no future in newspapers, but because I believe that they and and a whole new generation of media brands and services are more sustainable if they're unencumbered by the legacy and costly infrastructure of the big media owners.

As some big corporations try to bolt the stable door with a move to content paywalls, it seems to me that more nimble businesses producing more focused news and information for tightly defined audiences stand a much better chance of achieving sustainable incomes from - yes - advertising. I fundamentally agree with Jeff Jarvis that the future of journalism is entrepreneurial.

When a typical big corporation has to divert a chunk of every pound of advertising income to pay for press investments and pensions commitments as well as its day-to-day costs, it's no wonder they need more from digital revenues than advertisers are prepared to give. Smaller and more nimble operations, however, have a fraction of those overheads, and therefore can demand much more realistic ad rates of their advertisers. Paid content doesn't even come into it at this level. Paul Bradshaw at Birmingham City University has a very good explanation of the roots of newspapers' problems with the economics of advertising on his Online Journalism Blog.

I sympathise with the big corporations - and finer minds than mine are working to find ways of preserving great media brands, to save jobs, keep journalism alive - and return profits to shareholders. But audiences and advertisers are moving in only one direction - towards digital, and they're simply not going to turn back to print.

Despite that, I predict there will be an improvement in the fortunes of the big regional newspaper publishers as the economy stabilises and they reap the benefits of three years of serious cost-cutting. There may even be newspapers that, having taken radical steps to meet the challenge, will improve their circulation performance (note performance - not sales). The trick for the big companies is to keep all these plates spinning long enough to reach the moment when revenue from their digital operations is sufficient to underpin the whole business.

The trouble is, I'm impatient. Over the past five years or so I've watched the changes in reader habits, technology and society with fascination. I've been lucky to have worked in such a supportive environment as the Birmingham Post, and we've 'got away' with a lot of experimentation and innovation. Sometimes I've been frustrated by what's achievable within the corporate environment, so I think it's time to call my own bluff and go out and take some risks of my own.

It's time to get a proper job.

Or, to quote the great Irish philosopher Bill E. O'Shun . . .

1 comment:

  1. I fear that the loss of experienced journalists is devaluing the very product that attracts the readers who bring income for the business. That income loss will prompt the business's leaders to seek further savings, bringing about a downward spiral in their fortunes. Their demise will then leave a void. The question that must then be answered is: "What will fill that void?" Whoever finds the answer to that question will have the future of the industry in their hands. Best wishes for your future efforts. Paul Taylor, Canterbury Media School