- This was first published on January 1, 2010 on my blog for The Drum.
In my last post, I discussed why I was leaving newspapers after 25 years.
I thought I'd allow myself one more nostalgic post before this blog returns to what I hope will be its main purpose - discussing what's new in the world of media from the point of view of someone who's trying to make it as an entrepreneur, digital publisher and jack-of-all-consultancies (as well as some other stuff that might touch on the politics and economy of Birmingham).
And what better way to do this than with some good old-fashioned linkbait - a couple of lists?
So here we go. First: what am I going to miss about newspapers?
- The people. Yeah, I know - get all sentimental and cheesy on us, why don't you? But newspaper people, particularly journalists, are exhilarating to work with. Misfits, obsessives, idealists, enthusiasts, luddites, grumps, alcoholics, champions of the poor, radicals, visionaries, intellectuals, idiots, sociopaths, zealots, Tories, comedians, philosophers, mentors, plotters, schemers, conversationalists, jokers, workaholics, sloths, revolutionaries, timewasters, fantasists, campaigners, conservatives, explorers, pugilists, Marxists and cynics. I've worked with all of them, argued with some, and got drunk with most. A newsroom is a maelstrom of ideas and arguments swirling around a creative environment that of course won't be the same when virtual teams of content creators and curators are collaborating on Google Wave.
- The role of newspapers in society. For what historians will come to judge to be a very short period, newspapers held a monopoly over the attention of vast homogeneous audiences, each of which could be defined by a single shared characteristic: a location (regional papers) or a political prejudice (the national press). That gave the press great power, which it mostly discharged to the lasting benefit of our democracy (Thalidomide, MPs' expenses, the Guildford Four, numerous pelican crossings in small towns across the country). Consequently, being a journalist on (or even better, the editor of) a newspaper gave you privileged access to those in power, and also to those subject to that power. When you're the only media show in town, everyone will talk to you - or try not to. They certainly can't ignore what you say. With media proliferation, audience fragmentation, citizen apathy and the breakup of the old monopolies, I think it's doubtful that single titles will ever again wield such influence. That may not be a bad thing in some cases, but I fear that more people will be left voiceless as a result, at least until these early days of the media revolution have passed, and digital exclusion is successfully tackled.
- The smell of the ink. Making a newspaper is one of the last great manufacturing processes - and too many journalists have been so seduced by it that they've forgotten what the journalism's for in the first place. But it's a wonderful seduction, enticing initiates into a hidden world of arcane language and mysterious rituals. My ex-colleague Jo Ind brilliantly described this as 'the grubby sensuality of printing'. Until very, very recently, the production chain from reporter's notebook to newsagent followed a largely unchanged pattern punctuated by ens, ciceros and picas, and populated by layers of acolytes named sub editors, revise subs, desk heads, and copytasters, some of whom inhabited a mysterious world called the 'back bench'. But at the end of all this, the anticipation and then thrill of seeing the product of your labours encapsulated in the single, once-only incarnation of the newspaper edition is always an intoxicating experience. That tangible end-product flatters even the most lowly journalism with the permanence of being the 'first draft of history'. I'll miss that.
- The conservatism of management. An MD I once worked with in the south of England during the last boom years of the regional press - around the turn of the century - would shake his head in dismay at the latest growth figures for our recruitment advertising revenues. We were making millions of pounds a week - and literally turning business away ("Sorry, we've no more room" we'd tell advertisers) - and charging thousands of pounds for the smallest advertisements. 'Sits vac' became the dominant source of income for us and many other newspapers. "This can't last" said my MD, "but if we lose recruitment, we don't have a plan B." During the same period, every industry conference I attended spelled out (accurately, as it transpired) the threats and opportunities of the web. The future was clear - the party was going to end and we'd better do something about it. But that 'something' required newspaper managers to tell their bosses it was time to rip up the model that promised 40% margins to shareholders. Unsurprisingly, little happened, and precious few profits were diverted into intelligently equipping publishers for the future. The most senior managers in most newspaper groups achieved their positions at a time when the world was certain, definable and predictable. The model was 150 years old and still going strong. Nothing - but nothing - in their experience equipped them to anticipate or create change, unless it was to manage decline and cut costs during one of the periodical and predictable cyclical economic downturns. All the big groups are waking up now, but I fear the damage has been done, and I see little evidence of the cultural shift that surely should by now have transformed every publishing group in the land. Steve Outing, of Editor & Publisher suggests 'what should have been' in his brilliant valedictory blog post.
- The conservatism of the unions (and too many journalists). If there's one group in the 'regional press community' that has done more than conservative management teams to hobble the industry, it's the luddite, politically dominated, myopic, change-averse and frightened union (OK, I'll say it - the NUJ). In their view, newspapers have but one purpose: to serve and employ journalists, and every role, structure, process and tradition is to be preserved at all costs. For people who make a living questioning received wisdom and campaigning for change in society, journalists are strangely protective when it comes to their own environment. The certainty that the union would oppose any change has only helped secure change-averse managers in their own conservatism. They'd choose to fight the simple battles over job cuts, and avoid the more fundamental challenges of cultural and technological change. As unions and management conspired in their different ways to preserve the old world order, journalists lost their jobs in their thousands anyway. I've worked with some brilliant on-the-ground NUJ reps who cared passionately about their members' interests, but who also understood the changing media world. Unfortunately, they have been sadly let down by the sabre rattling and hysteria of their national masters. If I had an NUJ card, I'd follow Roy Greenslade and return it.
- The breathlessly keen PRs called Jemima sending irrelevant information and then PHONING TO SEE IF I RECEIVED THEIR EMAIL. OK, they don't plague print journalists only, but please, please let their industry be as savagely raped by change as has mine. "Did you get my press release about a survey we've done to show that five out of eight budgerigars in the Birmingham area would choose Trill over any other brand of food?" . Seriously, will you please just bugger off? And don't get me started on TV researchers who want to ask my readers to appear in lame daytime reality shows. When did I ever get free airtime on BBC One to ask viewers to send me their stories? Never, that's when.
Now for some soothing music.