Every week now another piece falls into place. The decline of the newspaper business as anything that anyone would want to progressively invest in is now turning into a rout. Like B2B magazine publishing, the question now is not what does the future hold, but how do we clear up the junk afterwards. These gloomy thoughts are prompted not just by Trinity Mirror’s catastrophic results this week, in which the half year to end July saw pre-tax profits decline from £84.8m last year to £28.9m this year, on revenue down from £382.2m to £371m. Or by the reaction of the markets: shares jumped 18% on rumours that the company was organizing a further share buyback, thus sacrificing its balance sheet on the altar of market valuation. And I am not further comforted by the fact that the Sunday Mirror gained from the disappearance of the News of the World, a situation which is purely temporary now that the Sun on Sunday has entered the market. Or by the announcement that the group internal investigation clears Piers Morgan and his colleagues from charges of phone hacking; this story has two years to run, and there seems to be no last shoe dropping/fat lady singing syndrome in sight yet. You could wallpaper the bathroom using denials and announcements from News Corp on internal investigations that show no wrong doing, and the same may yet be true of Trinity Mirror.

No, the piece that got to me was a report by that doyen of Fleet Street rectitude, Roy Greenslade, in his Guardian blog. He quotes David Lis, at Aviva Investors, as saying in the Sunday Times that “Its imperative that there is consolidation within the regional newspaper space. It simply has to happen.” We must listen to Mr Lis with respect: his company apparently own 10% of Trinity Mirror, whose shares have fallen two-thirds in value this year, prior to that buy back rumour. One wonders what his position is on the buyback, or indeed on the dividend (axed two years ago and unlikely to return), or the advertising trend at Trinity Mirror (down 11.1% on the half year) And he wants to buy more of that? Nothing braver has been said in any walk of life since Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich promising “Peace in our Time”!

Is it not yet apparent that the managers of the major regional press interests have done everything that capable and reasonable men can to save the ship? We have now had a decade of staff cutting, regional print centres to raise productivity and reduce costs, regional editorial services producing look-alike products in the towns and cities of Britain, and exodus from locality to create a minimum service level on the narrowest editorial presence, churning out doctored agency text designed to keep the ads apart on the page – until all of a sudden there were no ads. And the flight to the web, in the jealous editorial hands of the existing print papers, proved to be a real failure either to create something new and local or to extend the hallowed brands of the print world into web presence. Having once almost succeeded and then failed to persuade Trinity to buy Thomson Directories, and having seen them developing directories in Scotland in more recent years, I hoped that a penny had dropped, and that they were about to embark on a complete local advertising strategy online, something we often anxiously talked about years ago when Fish4 was being created with their support. But, no. Courage and convictios fell at the final hurdle.

So why, Mr Lis, are you persuaded that putting together one cost-pared declining business with another with the same problems makes any sense at all? There are few more cost savings to make. Advertisers will seek greater discounts across more newsprint. There are no competitive positions to close out – these papers are all local monopolies anyway. The trick that your company needs to perform is to invent the equivalent service values of the once popular local press in an online and mobile context. You need to do it, despite the disadvantage of starting in print, with these factors in mind:

1. The newspaper was always a partnership with the community – but newspapermen forgot that.

2. You cannot press a format onto a geography and call it a community.

3. Format is created by need and formalized by experience. Formats that outgrow needs have to be re-invented, bottom up.

So can you recreate the newspaper? No, but you can certainly create answers in digital media for issues of local and hyper-local communication, trade and exchange. Will they look like newspaper websites? Not at all – news is only important when other needs, which may include targeted news, are satisfied. Can you create environments that link whole communities? Of course, given time, but in some places it will be the schools, in others local businesses, in some sports, in others issues outcry (like high speed trains in Bucks) that will create the initial focus. Once the flame is going, feed it with tools and apps, manage it for the community and monetize it through eCommerce and sponsorship. And make it mobile from the first instance.

Meanwhile, readers of my letter to the CEO of Guardian Media Group will have recognized what is happening there. Apax and GMG declared a “special dividend” for EMAP, taking out a £100m benefit from a debt restructuring deal, presumably so that GMG can plug the hole in its finances arising from this years’ losses. They will not need reminding that even family silver can run out, and plugging losses does not secure a sustainable future.

Somewhere in the UK’s Palace of Westminster, where members of Parliament and their lordships, the Peers of the Upper House, will be recalled to discuss Britain’s urban conflagration, a tiny group of MPs have until recently been locked in solemn conclave in a Committee Room to finalize a report on… (no, not the economic disasters, or the future of communication with the Murdochs, but…) …the future of peer review in scholarly research publishing in science. To the profound relief of traditional science journal publishers everywhere, the report concludes that nothing much needs to be done by anyone to anything at any great rate, especially if change requires investment (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmsctech/856/85602.htm). Yet some far-seeing and radical publishers are beginning to change traditional rules – so why do they see the need for action while others crave only for the status quo?

It may well be the case that the largest long term impact of Open Access on scientific research reporting is not on business models or usage rights but, as this report goes to great lengths to deny, on peer review. We now have a situation where growing volumes of articles, waiting at the gate for time consuming single or double blind reviewing by unpaid armies of academics, are increasingly able to move past the “does it have an impact on the study of this subject?” test and pass only the essential but simpler technical surveillance implied in a test which asks “is this good scientific method and is it reproducible?”. This is the revolution wrought by Plos One and which is now being followed widely (Nature Communications and elsewhere). The Select Committee enquiry, while paying lip service to this, never brought itself to the point of quite grasping what has happened, and the evidence of publishers allowed them to happily luxuriate in that innocence.

The title of this piece is a quote from an American commentator given in evidence. It is one of the few peripheral signs of a widespread fear that the game is up for peer review where that means journals that clique-ishly track one school of thought and exclude others, where originality and innovation may fail at the barrier of even double blind reviewing (in niche sub-disciplines of some life sciences, everyone knows everyone’s research areas, or can look them up, anyway). No more than passing reference was made to gender prejudice, or indeed the craving of some journals to deter BRIC-based research – and others to artificially encourage it.

Having taken its evidence from those on both sides anxious for the status quo to be preserved, it is not surprising that the Parliamentary Committee drew a blank. While it noted that the BMJ followed an Open Peer Review methodology, it did not appear to feel it necessary to recommend this to others. Yet an increasing body of opinion seems to be saying that while a simple set of technical tests may be all that is needed to get into the database, all of these processes must be completely open. Peers should be brave enough to stand behind their views, review notes and correspondence should be published, evidential data supporting the experiments should be available, and, post-publication, notes and correspondence relating to reproducibility of the experiment should appear alongside the article. At the same time bibliometrics relating to citation and to actual usage must also be maintained. It seems to some observers that Publishers might have to dismantle the cozy editorial relationships that surround current practice in favour of appointing some paid-for fulltime investigators to give a thorough and documented public technical report on whether the paper applies recognizable scientific method which aligns with accepted good practice, and then track and publish reactions to the work within the community. In other words, a different way of spending the £1.9 bn said in RIN’s 2008 report to be the cost of peer review.

And then you see publishers with a real sense of community ownership beginning to build the tools that will allow them to do this. This week the American Institute of Physics (www.aip.org) launched its iPeerReview tool, allowing authors and reviewers to download an app to their iPhone/iPad enabling them to review  status and do work on articles submitted and in work in progress. This extends AIP’s existing workflow environments, Scitation and Peer X-Press. The day is not long off when this type of workflow tool will not only be omnipresent but also transparent, and while some competitive issues, especially around patents applied for, will need careful handling, so much of this research is pre-competitive that this may be less of a problem than first appears. Publishing evidential data may be more of an issue . Publishers and academic administrators currently chorus that the cost would be excessive, but surely they cannot be talking, as they did to the Parliamentary Committee, about the costs of storage, since those are a fraction of what they were a decade ago, and anyway the evidence is already stored by the research project – it just needs to be linked and accessible, and transparently available for other researchers, with permission, to use their own tools to search it and other experimental data with the range of mining and extraction tools now open to them. Publishers should perhaps be in the forefront of extending this service base to their communities of users: those giving evidence to the committee seemed more anxious to defend the journal, as if it were a craft skill like dry stone walling, hedge laying or wattle hurdle making.

And then I came across GSE Research.com, a new project in beta which will launch in the fall. It aims to provide an effective Open Access platform for research into Governance, Environmental Science  and Sustainability, importantly relating research to practice and allowing users a full community participation alongside researchers and professionals. But it was not the built-digital features (how much easier without a print legacy!), or the social investment fund or even the Research Exchange that first attracted me.  It was the emphasis on putting in, alongside the option for a traditional review model, a fast publication Open Peer Review system, in which the Editor makes the first decision, and the community is able to comment, build and improve the result. “We need to learn to include, not exclude, and give the peer community a chance to decide what is relevant, (not just a handful of individuals.” This is a project to watch, but also a trend to be noted. (www.gseresearch.com )

So should we be surprised or disappointed with the result of the Commons deliberations? As a UK taxpayer, I feel like asking for my money back, but as an observer of Parliamentary Committees, noting the number of times the Murdochs and their executives appeared before them before the Great Hacking Scandal broke, surprise would hardly be in the range of available emotional responses.

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