Now, I don’t want to sound cynical, though with the waters rising in winter England, it feels like the time to rail at the Gods or start building the Ark. Not that I was at Stonehenge for the winter solstice last week, but from the press coverage the event received you would be forgiven for thinking that the Government had resigned and been replaced by a Druidic theocracy. Then again, would we notice?
Not if we were reading the newspapers, would be one appropriate answer. As the network impact becomes ever clearer, the verdict on Britain’s press – and many other peoples as well, may well be “too little, too late, too irrelevant, too hard to manage”. In other words, they have lost their original position in the cycle of societal reporting, commentary and opinion-forming and failed to find another. Yet every news programme on television and radio has an anachronistic “what the papers say” slot, and our pollsters and politicians still use them as a measure of success or failure. For goodness sake, Why? It is about as useful as consulting the Delphic Oracle and about as relevant. Since 90% of the UK press support the party currently in power, with only the Guardian and the Independent (and the Mirror at elections) outside the Tory huddle, they form an unchosen gallery to whom politicians play, despite the fact that the newspaper reading population has been falling annually for a generation, and now represents less than 5% of the population.
These thoughts are a preamble to what was intended to be a look at where the newspaper industry is on the path to accord with a networked society. It comes from someone who has just changed smartphones – and has loaded the apps for Twitter, LinkedIn, Breaking News, the BBC – but stopped short of a newspaper. I have the FT and the Guardian on the iPad – but increasingly regard them as leisure reading. So I was fascinated to see that Trinity Mirror had withdrawn its daily tablet edition after seven months. When this was launched, initially as a business edition of the Birmingham Post, we were told that it would ” re-invent business journalism within the regional press”. One comment, probably from a staff member, resonated for me on the www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk website. “Enough is enough, Coventry” wrote: “It was a stupid idea from the start. We were told by the powers-that-be that this would be the future and that it was going to be the prototype for new platforms across the whole of Trinity Mirror. But yet again the bosses have proved we have little or no idea of what we are doing in the digital world. Our digital strategy is as old and tired as the people dictating it to us”.
This tirade was still swilling around in my mind when Tony Gallagher got fired or resigned, or just abdicated (its really hard to tell from the press coverage). For those just joining, Mr Gallagher, who seems to be a good journalist, editor of the Daily Telegraph, and an honest and upright soul, fell out with the powers-that-be over digital strategy. He went, without having quarrelled with either his boss or with the Chief Content Officer, Jason Seiken (pronounced Psychen, apparently) who came from saving PBS to save the Telegraph. Mr Seiken, also apparently, sees the future of the Telegraph as a lifestyle video company and reporters (“Telegraphs got Talent!”) are interviewing as presenters. But didn’t the previous Editor-in-Chief, Will Lewis, think video is the future of the Torygraph? That’s right, he is the one who also got fired and has now replaced Lex Fenwick, who resigned, as commander-in-chief of Murdoch’s bewildered Dow Jones division. Somehow British executives who cannot understand market needs here (pace ex-BBC boss, Mark Thomson, now at the New York Times) get even bigger jobs in the US. Could “Enough is Enough, Coventry” be right?
So much is apparent, so much is unreal. Like the Guardian at long last selling its 50.1% stake in AutoTrader. The deal, announced this week, is said to be worth over £600 m, and will provide the Scott Trust, the owners of the Guardian, with further funds to offset the Guardian’s losses. The buyer is Apax, the private equity owner of the balance of the equity. Watch out for an IPO here with a £2 billion price tag. AutoTrader (not to be confused with the US operation of the same name) got it right in terms of digital transformation – they created a new platform replete with things that people who buy cars want to do, and they made it cover the full transaction activity so that it was a solution, not an advertising medium. The man who ran it, Andrew Miller, is now CEO at the Guardian (but could be in line to run the Washington Post, at this rate). But still, despite its apparent success online, the Guardian is not a networked citizen, though it tries harder than most. Mr Miller’s preoccupations will include how on earth he turns EMAP, also co-owned with Apax, into an additional bulwark for the Scott Trust: the Guardian is still losing money.
The beginning of the networked world for the former newspaper people is not simply a matter of a competitive rush to a digital market, throwing everything at experimental services. One can agree that iterative experimentation is vital. But even experiments have to start somewhere. The attractive part of the Seiken story is that the Chief Content Officer is described everywhere as “reclusive”. Maybe that is what we need: some good quality thinking about things that need to happen in our networked lives that concern the way we use “news” or any other content to speak to each other. Could be video, could be Vice, could be Buzzfeed, but it means starting again. Let print hold out as long as owners can afford it, but we really do have to get serious now about inventing the future – or buying it from someone who has done it already.keep looking »