Future of journalism: papers must deliver value – to readers not shareholders

The i newspaper is one of the paper from the Johnston Press stable that has recently been in play. Philip Toscano/PA Wire/PA Images

The conflict that exists within the organisations that own Britain’s newspapers, and the strategies that they employ in running their businesses, was recently brought into sharp focus. One of the key regional players, Johnston Press, went from publicly-listed administration to a controversial, private rebirth within 24 hours, prompting a wider debate around the state of the industry.

The company, which owns major regionals such as The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post as well as the nationally popular i newspaper, announced on November 16 that it was in administration only to reveal the following day it had been bought out by its debtors and would continue to operate as before but under the new name of JPIMedia.

While it undoubtedly leaves the newspaper titles in a healthier financial position for now, whether or not any optimism will be long-lasting, given the state of the UK’s print newspaper market, is a matter of some conjecture.

In September 2018, I made a submission to the Cairncross Review – a government initiative to examine the options for securing a sustainable future for high quality journalism. The events of the past week have led me back to the following extract:

During the past decade of declining revenues, the traditional local news publishers have used a smoke and mirrors approach to mask their editorial cutbacks. News content has become more regionalised and less relevant, patch offices and receptions have been closing, while titles have continued to be branded as local. There are understandable business reasons for this happening, but these public limited companies have always had profits at their core, often prioritising their shareholders over their readers.

This tension remains at the heart of many newspaper companies – and it is also a parallel to the historic and counter-intuitive decision-making that still remains when it comes to print and web content.

If everyone in the industry – regional or national – knew then what they know now about the challenges faced with monetising their websites through a commercial base then I’m sure the landscape would be very different. The assumption that display advertisers, classifieds, property and motors would migrate seamlessly into digital was fatally flawed because the traditional media giants did not anticipate the competition that would spring up. They had no track record of overcoming it by making their own offerings better than the rest.

And while they were struggling to compete online, time and cash should have been reinvested into the printed products which, while on a declining sales trend, still remain profitable and well-read by certain key demographics.

What the events surrounding the Johnston Press have done is to complete a jigsaw whose outline was already well-known – that the eye-watering return on sales figures pocketed during the 1990s and 2000s were part of a recipe for the mess the industry now finds itself in.

Printing money

So what value remains in printing traditional newspapers, as opposed to an online-only approach favoured by titles such as The Independent?

There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates the continuing demise of print. But the value of print is not purely economic in nature, and should not be placed in a silo away from the value it brings to news brands as a whole.

There is a negative correlation between the popularity of a newspaper and the trust the reader has in it. If you were to place the sales and trust rankings of the main ten titles in the UK side-by-side you’d see the order turned on its head. Trust is a valuable commodity that not only gives credibility to the printed product but also pervades into the perception of the online offering of the same brand.

Take the Guardian. With one of the highest trust ratings for a national newspaper – and despite its relatively low print sales – it has been able to leverage that emotional attachment and use it to develop an online contribution scheme that will enable it to break even by April 2019. While the printed product may appear to be in decline, it still acts as a firm foundation for the overall news brand as it seeks to evolve.

Newspapers also remain an integral part of the profits in many media portfolios. Within Johnston Press, the printed offshoot of The Independent, the i newspaper, was the jewel in the crown, bought for £24m in 2016 and now being touted at a value of £60m. At a regional level, concentrating resources and a focus on print remains a core and profitable component of several groups, especially those in private ownership, such as Iliffe Media, which owns a range of local newspapers.

For the many

But the perceived value of the newspaper format should not be limited to the balance sheet – there is value for the reader, too. And sometimes it takes a holistic view to fully appreciate what this consists of. While the web may be ideal for delivering bespoke content that can be accessed via search, the newspaper allows people an opportunity for a deep dive into the news – not only reading the stories they are primarily concerned with, but stumbling across material they would never have known about otherwise.

Stories that educate and inform them about their community, their country, their world. Curated for them by trained professionals, rather than through the vagaries of any unregulated social platform. Providing what society needs rather than what an audience wants.

There is a compelling argument that printed newspapers will cease to exist, or may remain in existence as a niche offering. But freed from the shackles of shareholdings – and with a model that promotes a long-term sustainable future over short-term profits – there is an equally compelling argument that newspapers, and the journalism within them, can continue to be a universally valuable part of the media landscape for some time to come.

Support evidence-based journalism with a tax-deductible donation today.