I posted here in December and suggested that the ‘digital media’ strategy of the Johnston Press (JP), owners of a big chunk of the UK’s local newspaper market, might simply be a superficial cover for swingeing staff cuts which could be disastrous for journalistic quality and, in the end, the business too. I’d been struck by how 25% of staff journalists had been paid-off across the UK and editors of major titles done away with, yet circulation decline had actually accelerated. I wrote that new CEO Ashley Highfield, a digital media expert rather than someone with conventional newspaper management experience, had been brought in ostensibly to ‘move JP into the digital age’. In the first year, he’d swung the axe on journalists and therefore reduced costs by enough to maintain a reasonable return to investors in spite of the reduced revenue; and he’d publicly put his faith in a return to paid circulation growth and, crucially, digital revenue. ‘Digital display’, said Highfield in interviews, is the future of the regional newspaper industry.
Oh, really? Digital display and paywalls for local newspapers? I was sceptical and truly not cynical. I co-founded this group in parliament. I’m lucky enough to meet new media entrepreneurs every week. I’m genuinely involved in the ‘digital economy’. But that doesn’t mean I support the mindless slash-and-burning of people just because the guy going it has one (very impressive) public digital venture behind him.
As a punter and politician, I was aware of the downward pressure on costs and, inevitably, standards of reporting at JP (and, to some extent, competitors I’ll mention in a moment), yet unconvinced that digital revenue could ever be grown enough for local, rather than national, newspapers in the way Highfield suggests. In addition, I was aware that many of the JP journos who hadn’t been sacked were refusing to use the nice new video kit they’d been bought unless this was reflected in their pay – which it can’t be because of the cuts agenda. Highfield seemed a novice to management; his ‘digital’ language didn’t seem to add up to much. You know? You can’t bluff a bluffer?
It struck me as a least possible that firing experienced journos, replacing them with very new newbies and simply issuing the latter with video kit – like it’s simply a matter of flicking a few switches – wasn’t really a realistic means of maintaining a viable journalistic enterprise.
At the same time, I’d spotted a Guardian interview with Highfield during the cuts, just under 2 years ago, which noted that circulation was expected to rise that year (year ending 2012). In fact, circulation in the original JP newspaper, my local, The Falkirk Herald, and many other titles, dropped by up to 10% that year – just as it had dropped every year for some years, including after it’s ‘digital relaunch’. I’d also noticed that the JP had gone over to annual, rather than the six-monthly reporting of its circulation, and in the meantime there’d be a 14 month gap in its (and other groups’) circulation figures being made public.
Well that gap finally closed today, with the publication of new newspaper circulatin, or ABC, figures. And what do they show? Well, Falkirk Herald circulation is down another 10%, and it’s the same story at pretty much of their titles including flagships ‘The Yorkshire Post’ and ‘The Scotsman’. The gloss put out by JP in anticipation of the continued sharp decline is, as ever, that ‘website hits’ and so forth are up – but everyone knows that hits are only vaguely related to digital revenue and digital revenue is itself only a fraction of a newspaper’s revenue.
It looks (to me, not an industry pro) like Highfield has been shy on the ABC stats with investors and advertisers in order to avoid the truth, for a short while, of rapid year-on-year circulation decline. Maybe I’m wrong – but folk presently inside JP certainly suggest I’m not.
Politicians almost always soft-soap it with local and regional media. The latter gets easy (but declining) money from publicly-funded advertisements on the basis it provides a local service. In return, the local paper soft-soaps on the rubbish press releases of the local MP not mine, mind you!). But what seems to be happening is that local and regional titles are turning into something altogether different – cheap and cheerful online content churned out by folk being paid bottom dollar. If that can be made to pay then that’s cool, but there’s absolutely no reason the taxpayer should support it all. If local newspapers are dying in order to be replaced by something new, then let the market sort it out and get rid of the huge state subsidy. If, on the other hand, there’s scope for a ‘new thing’ which retains at least some of the standards of the old industry, then let’s all look carefully at JP and see if what’s really going on isn’t less a journalistic evolution and more of a bloody and fatal hatchet job.
And for Scots? Well, all of Scotland’s indigenous papers are locals/regionals. Nobody is Scotland likes to write about it, but newspapers like the Scotsman and Herald have miniscule circulations (30,000 and declining). The Daily Record circulation has dropped by two-thirds in 10 years. In fact, the situation in Scotland seems to be that UK newspapers with Scottish editoralised editions have been able to keep up to editoral and journalistic scratch because of their larger, national critical mass. They can make better ‘offers’, whether linked to other media services or not. Meanwhile, indigenous papers like the Record have become glorified local newspapers – sharing an ‘editor’ or taking one on on the cheap, putting out local stories as ‘national’ ones, re-cycling stuff from the internet, publishing ever-more ropey and poorly fact-checked stories. Worst of all, perhaps, the Record putting out shockingly awful free-sheets (see the pitiful Aberdonian and Edinburgher, or whatever it’s called) to undercut long-established publications like the Press and Journal and Edinburgh Evening News.
There’s a digital revolution all right – but unless someone finds a new model, there may not be space for local newspapers, with proper journalists, in it.
(Hat-tip to the ABC, whose official I won’t name here was super-helpful but with the right, decent, note of respect and care for those who list their results there)