This was not the title of the lecture given yesterday by Gavin Ellis, the former Editor-in-chief of the NZ Herald, as part of the Winter lecture series hosted by the University of Auckland – a series titled “The end(s) of journalism”. Gavin’s lecture was titled “Paying the Piper“. I chose the title for this blog post to reflect I guess, what I saw as the challenge raised within the lecture and representative of the challenges facing the broad media industry in general, of how to deal with the changes wrought by the explosion of self-publishing facilitated by the medium of the social web and the blog.
The lecture provided an excellent and compelling insight into the background to the current state of the newspaper industry globally (more of this later) and then moved on to examine the challenges of how to separate the function of the newspaper – to inform; from the role of the newspaper – to make money. Gavin outlined the Trust models established under governing charters which set out to protect the democratic integrity of journalism as verifiers of the truth in news. Great examples exist – most notably The Guardian in the UK and The Irish Times.
However when it came to the often-debated issue as to the credibility of blogs vs serious professional journalists – the analogy Gavin used of feathers vs. lead shot whilst making the point, did not resonate with me. His argument was that serious professional journalists have a natural advantage in having significant inertia in political influence – and collectively a ton of lead (as the analogy of the collective weight of a group of serious professional journalists) can exert that influence through the media to hold politicians to account. However he then went on with his analogy to liken bloggers and their individual influence to that of a feather, and even when aggregated as a ton of feathers does not have the same attacking impact as a ton of lead. This analogy sadly seeks to generalise bloggers as lone individuals with tiny audiences. This is far from the truth.
There are many bloggers with far greater, more engaged and loyal audiences than many journalists and whole media vehicles. These are not uninformed amateurs, rather they are more often than not serious journalists who are breaking the news – take Bernard Hickey of Interest.co.nz for example. He has the critical audience to be respected as a serious journalist and can unnerve the odd politician, and yet he is not a cog in a giant media empire. He is not alone here in NZ or overseas there are many other examples – the Huffington Post being a most notable one.
The point with blogs is that they allow specialisation – empowering experts in tight niche areas to have a voice and engage an audience, yes there are many very amateurish ones, but the beauty of the web is that audiences find and share what they like and the cream always rises. So I would have to challenge the notion of the lecture that the only way to ensure the safety of our democracy (for that was the alarmist view) solely lies in the protection through Trust structures within media organisations where serious professional journalists can operate unsullied by the commercial reality of business. There is a place for this model, but it is important to allow the democratic medium of the web and its aggregation of specialist bloggers to add their capability to the future of news in a new dispersed and open manner which allows it to be pushed to those that wish to receive it.
Returning to the research background of the lecture. I was enlightened and impressed by the analysis of the self generated issues that the newspaper industry has collectively got itself into over the past decade presented in the lecture. Paying respect to Gavin Ellis for his extensive research, let me share a summary of his perspective.
The seeds for the demise of newspapers in the western world and especially the English speaking world were sewn in the 1950’s – a time of rapid rise in newspaper circulation. In the US circulation broke through 60 million by 1964 and in NZ it grew from 785,000 to 1,000,000 in the late 50’s / early 60’s. As circulation grew so did advertising revenue – the era of mass market advertising was in its heyday as Madison Avenue splurged on newspaper advertising. Between 1950 and 2000 advertising revenue in print in the US grew by 2251%.
This booming business of newspapers in the 70’s and 80’s saw the stock exchange listing of many newspapers given the fixed cost nature of the industry which was leading to very high profit margins. With every growing revenue and strong circulation their collective stock values rocketed in the 1980’s. This then sparked a round of acquisitions as media empires were built.
However with the start of the 1990’s newspapers began to loose circulation as alternative media appeared. the US circulation peaked in 1993 and fell below 60 million and has been falling since then. In NZ peak circulation at 1,050,000 fell to 727,000 by 2005. Interesting at the same time newspapers began to quote readership rather than circulation – hoping to bolster the data.
The 1990’s also exposed a fundamental flaw in the industry which Gavin Ellis describes as the “service gap” – as circulation fell, newspapers steadily increased advertising rates – endeavouring to sell a scarce resource, however this was always going to come back to bite the industry as it has done in the last 10 years. However to shore up this broken business model the industry consolidation which began in the 1990’s accelerated with the created safety of powerful monopolies and duopolies as we have effectively had in NZ. This helped support the industry right up until the Great Recession.
The past 4 years has been the worst of times for newspapers globally. Saddled with enormous debt borne of the aggressive acquisitions of the past decades and hyper inflated stock valuations, matched to declining advertising markets, have destroyed balance sheets and lead to aggressive cost cutting. In the US many newspapers have folded and many more may well yet fold.
Now barely limping back from the effects of the recession, newspapers are challenged by the online world of instant access to all the news – no longer needing to wait for the daily print version when news is truly 24/7 and pushed to individual devices rather than being found. Gavin’s prediction for the future of newspapers (which I could see) would be the elimination of the daily printed newpaper, replaced by a online subscription model wrapped up with a weekend print edition. Personally I could buy (and would buy) this concept – as long as quality content is consistently provided – that quality content could come from serious professional journalists or alternatively the aggregation and curation of the collective wisdom of professional bloggers. Ideally a mix of the two.Gavin Ellis is the former Editor in Chief of the NZ Herald and is currently completing his doctoral thesis in political studies at the University of Auckland. The notes on his lecture are published by the NZ Herald.