THERE’S a lot of activity in the West Midlands medialand at the moment, much of it a microcosm of what’s going on in the sector across the UK and beyond. I wonderered, then, if I could draw any conclusions about the future shape of the media by looking at a snapshot of what’s happening now.
What follows is a pretty incoherent collection of thoughts, and I apologise in advance for my lacklustre excuse for a ‘conclusion’ at the end. You might want to stop reading now, to be honest.
Disregarding the entry of my new venture, TheBusinessDesk.com into the fray, we’ve seen the launch of at least two new Midlands business
magazines recently and the imminent arrival of a new weekly newspaper for Birmingham before the end of April. These come a few months after the Birmingham Post became a weekly newspaper, the Birmingham Mail stopped on-the-day publishing and dozens of weekly newspapers were shut down.
Add to that the proliferation of dozens of ‘hyperlocal’ websites in the region, not to mention continuing consolidation in the radio sector, and you have what some may be tempted to label a trend.
Further afield, Rupert Murdoch is calling the web’s bluff by charging for online access to the venerable Times, and a Commons committee has railed against the use of council taxpayers’ money to fund local authority propaganda sheets just as local newspaper revenues and circulations plummet southwards. (Read Jeff Jarvis here to see why Murdoch’s experiment is doomed to failure by the way). The paring down of the Digital Economy Bill means that Independently Funded News Consortia look unlikely to be replacing ITV’s loss-making regional news services anytime soon, but TV’s problems remain anyway. (Declaration: I sat on the panel that advised the Government on the selection of the IFNC consortia).
But stand back for a moment, and you realise that all we’re seeing is the collapse of an old and outdated world order and its empires, and the inevitable anarchy that follows. The West Midlands reflects a global change that paradoxically is being ignored by so many of those most affected. But if you look at what’s happening here, you may get an idea of where these momentous changes might take us all eventually.
The old guard continue to fight the old battles
The economics that sit behind great media engines like News International, Trinity Mirror and ITV have changed forever, but – just like the recession – that change comes with a very long tail, and its effects therefore will be felt for a long time to come. That time lag means that - like Japanese soldiers stranded on an island long after the armistice was signed – many players think the only sensible action is to keep on fighting the same battles will the same weapons. So you have Chris Bullivant, a West Midlands free newspaper entrepreneur through and through, who understands everything about newspapers but nothing about Web 2.0. He has spotted an opponent’s weakness and is poised to strike ruthlessly at that weak spot. For the Birmingham Post & Mail, that’s an inability to swamp the market with free weekly newspaper copies in the numbers it used to, which automatically lowers the cost of entry for streetfighters like Bullivant.
But even this is a sideshow in the long-term decline of print as the dominant regional media. Nothing Bullivant or BPM do can halt the exodus of advertising pounds and readership attention from print.
Rupert Murdoch has decided that because people pay for newspapers, they should pay for news content online. But people have never really paid for content in print. When you buy a newspaper, you are paying for a delivery channel in the same way you now pay for your broadband connection. Newspaper content is subsidised either by advertising or the deep pockets of a proprietor. A newspaper’s cover price barely pays for the paper it’s printed on and the cost of getting it to the newsagent. Murdoch will fail because his strategy is built on the presumption that consumers ‘should’ do something for the convenience of the publisher, and that they must be forced to change their habits. Whoever heard of a business plan that has such contempt for the customer at its core?
As the attraction of daily, and even weekly, newsprint ‘commodity’ print publishing declines as a business model, so rises the potential of niche, less frequent specialist publications like business magazines. Defined audiences appeal to specialist advertisers, more so than absolute numbers, so it’s not surprising that a few such publications pop up to fill a perceived gap. Similarly, you’ll find no shortage of niche publications in rude health serving everyone from nudists to newt breeders.
When the rules of the game change, so do the rules of entry
Saddled by decades-long capital and pensions commitments, old school publishers need to make bigger margins from online publishing than purely online publishers do. Consequently, they find themselves fighting for revenues with one arm and often two legs tied behind their back. The twin demands of shareholder expectation and legacy costs force them to the conclusion that the web ‘doesn’t pay’ as a publishing medium, and all they’re left with is the nothing-left-to-lose strategy of suddenly charging for what has been free since the web was invented 20 years ago. Meanwhile, new-school upstarts (guilty as charged) come along with three smart people, three laptops, an idea, and perhaps even a corner of a serviced office, and fulfil a need for information and advertising at a fraction of the cost.
Any new ‘old guard’ will be swept away in the blink of an eye
Anyone comfortably settling themselves in for a long career as ‘web publisher’ had better get real. Print monopolies may have lived high on the hog for a couple of hundred years or so, but the equivalent timespan in web publishing is measured in months.
And this is the real problem for the ‘old guard’. When they eventually get what the internet really means for their business, they’ll be seduced into thinking they’ve swapped the old certainties of print for the new certainties of digital.
But the very concept of ownership of ‘the ‘message’ or even the distribution channel used to disseminate it is now outdated. The still barely understood world of social media means that the brokerage of your message by third parties is now only one part of the overall comms mix for organisations. Why buy advertising online (or on any other medium for that matter) when some well-chosen messages in Twitter or on LinkedIn can achieve the same result for a fraction of the price – and without the need to take that drunken journalist for a free lunch either?
So while it’s interesting to watch the activities of Bullivant and Murdoch – albeit at different ends of the spectrum – don’t read into their machinations anything more than the dying breaths of creatures desperately staving off extinction. And don’t assume either that the new trends – whether Twitter, hyperlocal blogs, or Independently Funded News Consortia – point definitively to the future either.
The new ‘normality’ is anything but. Perpetual revolution and reinvention are the only new constants in the media now.