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Telegraph Group joins Gadarene rush with folding of Sunday title into 7-day operation

March 13, 2013

Telegraph 7-day operationThe newspaper is dead, and the Telegraph’s decision to merge its daily and Sunday titles into a 7-day-a-week operation is yet another nail in its coffin. Long live the free press.

By “free press” I mean not the plutocratic oligarchy (absent the Guardian and Observer owning Scott Trust) that maintains a diminishing stranglehold over printed national news, but that other sense of free – “free of charge”. The internet, with Google algorithms in the vanguard, is slowly, inexorably, doing what no politician could ever do: it is breaking down the cartel.

No qualitative judgement is made or implied about this being a Good Thing for the advancement of civilised values. Indeed, on balance, it may well be a bad thing. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as free journalism. If we are all able, in a matter of moments, to find out what is going on by tapping a few words into a search box at virtually no cost who, exactly, is going to pay for the many hours of sweat, journalistic nous and training that went into crafting the news item in the first place?

It’s a conundrum that digital content strategists frequently explain away by reference to the woolly wisdom of “creative destruction”. Darwinian metaphor is highly misleading, however. Paper dinosaurs may well be on their way to destruction. But there is nothing inevitable about the evolution of a genus of fleet-footed digital mammals to take their place. The ways of evolution are multiform, mysterious and rarely linear. While it is entirely understandable that legacy media institutions should present themselves as the natural guarantors of smooth transition, the reality (with the possible exception of such venerable specialist titles as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal) may be very different. More likely there will be a period of chaotic evolutionary stasis before something commercially semi-vertebrate emerges anew from the economic goo.

I mention all this after briefly reviewing the latest set of national newspaper circulation figures (ABCs). My, how the mighty have tumbled. The Guardian, for example, shed 5.31% in just one month (February) Admittedly this followed a price hike, but the circulation figure is now around 193,586 which – as MediaWeek reminds us – is The Guardian’s lowest headline figure since records began, in 1949. The paper is worried about having breached a psychological barrier, even after sales were pumped by a recent BBH ad campaign. Not so long ago, I seem to remember that psychological barrier was 400,000, not 200,000.

Guardian print circulation may be in freefall, but its trend is by no means atypical. The Sun on Sunday is down nearly 5% month on month, representing a 41% collapse since Rupert Murdoch phoenixed it last year out of the ashes of The News of The World. The Sunday Express has descended below 500,000; The Mirror is barely achieving 1 million; The Sun itself, not so long ago hovering around the 3 million mark, is now gliding towards 2 million. Only the i – a scarcely economic 20p news digest – managed an increase, and that a miserly 1.45% to just shy of 300,000. Those with a head for historical statistics might like to note that its host, The Independent, now boasts a circulation of no more than 75,000. Even The Sunday Times – psychological barrier once 1 million – is now drifting down to 875,000.

In light of this dismal picture, it is no surprise to find The Sunday Telegraph (February ABC: 429,346) huddling closer to The Daily Telegraph (541,036) for warmth. As with the Sun, Mirror and The Independent 7-day operations that have preceded it, the rhetoric of the Telegraph’s transformation is radical and upbeat. The grim reality – and ultimate rationale for the move – is jobs lost. And with them, irreplaceable experience.

Murdoch MacLennanTrue, the headline figure of 80 print jobs out of 550 editorial staff being culled is not the whole picture. It emerges that Telegraph Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan (left) will offset some of these losses with 50 “new digitally-focused jobs” – including a new position, director of content who will sit over both editors – and inject £8m into his “number one” priority of completing “our transition into a digital business.”

No matter how many time he incants the mantra “digital business”, MacLennan is unlikely – any more than his rivals who have trodden the same primrose path – to extricate his titles from the financial doldrums. The damage to the brand – particularly the Sunday brand – with its more considered, investigative magazine-like approach – is likely to be considerable. The strategic upside, after an initial financial up-tick, on the other hand is doubtful. Expect to see more circulation decline once disappointed Sunday readers reject the graft.

On the face of it, digital global readers, in whose name all this 7-day stuff is being done, look a worthy prize. For a start, there are lots of them. In January, for example, The Telegraph’s website traffic (by no means the most voluminous among newspaper brands) grew 11% over the previous month to 3,129,599 – the sort of circulation figure that no UK newspaper has been able to boast of for a very long time. But it’s fool’s gold. Digital readers are fickle and rather more likely to be driven by search than brand loyalty. Advertisers have recognised this by tightening their wallets. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt long ago observed, there’s no better way of turning advertising dollars into cents than migrating to digital publishing. Nor, for the aforementioned reason of declining brand loyalty, are paywalls a viable financial alternative. Unlike the customers of banks, digital readers do have a choice. And they’re using it.

On the other hand, senior newspaper management cannot be seen to be doing nothing. They must inject energy and excitement into a task which, increasingly, looks as suicidal as the rush of the Gadarene swine.

How long before The Observer and Guardian – estimated to be losing about £50m a year – follow the same headlong path?

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How long before Leveson is kicked into the long grass?

November 29, 2012

LOL – now he knows what it means – must have been David Cameron’s reaction after reading Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press. First came an audible sigh of relief over the vindication of his own reputation, which– despite inappropriate platonic text dalliance with La Brooks, now awaiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure on several criminal charges; oh, and former prime ministerial comms director Andy Coulson, let’s not forget him – received not a brickbat; then a guffaw over the exoneration of his health and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, once he realised Leveson had whitewashed his role in the BSkyB/Murdoch saga at the expense of Hunt’s mendacious adviser, Adam Smith.

But the biggest laugh of all was surely reserved for Leveson’s keystone proposal: a statutory “underpinning” to press regulation. Over Cameron’s dead body. The introduction of any such measure, however camouflaged, would be tantamount to the Tory leader committing political suicide.

This “underpinning” business is the crux of the report, and the reason why it  – like the 7 inquests into the power of the press over the last 70 years preceding it – will be kicked into the long grass as soon as dignity allows.

Let’s be quite clear. Neither Leveson nor any of the 300 or so witnesses called before the inquiry demanded explicit intervention by the state or politicians in the conduct of British newspapers. The debate is a lot more nuanced than that and concerns not whether – that is a given on all sides – but how the current, flaccid, self-regulatory apparatus – known as the Press Complaints Commission – should be given independent coercive force.

The newspaper proprietors and editors want PCC-Plus – no surprise there. While there are shades of difference between the Hunt/Black proposals (both these peers are prominent members of the PCC) and the axis represented by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent, the press is united on one vital prerequisite to reform. Under no circumstances should there be any statutory element – direct or indirect – in the new, toughened regulatory framework, whatever final form it takes.

And that’s just where Leveson disagrees with them. His point is that no form of self-regulation can be credibly independent when newspaper proprietors – whatever their pious assertions about newspaper ethics in public – continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. PCC-Plus might enable them to do this in a number of ways. Though serving editors would now be excluded from any committee of the Good and the Wise, proprietors could exercise covert influence over the selection of those sitting in regulatory judgement over them through financial manipulation. One of the prime principles of self-regulation is, after all, the inalienable right of the industry being regulated to pay for its own regulation. Lack of financial love might well be shown towards any candidate considered even mildly resistant to the idea of uncurbed press freedom, in the form of a threatened funding boycott.

And that’s just for starters. What about speedy redress of wrongs? What of punishment that actually fits the crime – as opposed to a self-administered slap on the wrist, or impractically long and expensive court cases which are beyond the means of most would-be litigants?

For these and other reasons, Leveson seems to believe that only the veiled threat of statutory intervention will give the regulator the independence, public respect and muscle that is so clearly required. Most members of the public, according to recent YouGov opinion poll, agree with him. The trouble is, most of Cameron’s party – the party in power – do not. They know that the backing of newspaper proprietors can be vital to a successful election result; and, once in power, it is very difficult to succeed in the face of an unremittingly hostile press. They also know that whatever any future statute book might say, newspapers are a law unto themselves. And, when it comes down to it, they will portray legislative curbs on their activities as incipient tyranny – and brush it aside accordingly. One thing that hasn’t changed in over 70 years is the truth of then prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s observation that newspaper proprietors enjoy “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” He was referring to Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, whose newspapers had just forced him from office. There’s still a Viscount Rothermere, but nowadays the Beaverbrook clan has been displaced by the Murdoch mafia.

So, statutory “underpinning” – forget it. As for Ofcom being allowed to do the underpinning, don’t make me laugh out loud. Ofcom is out of the frying pan into the fire, in regulatory terms. We can be certain the appointment of its executives will be untouched by the influence of press barons for one very good reason: they are picked by a minister of the crown (currently culture secretary Maria Miller). That aside, what conceivable qualification do a group of career bureaucrats have in passing judgement on press freedom?


Wonga scores own goal with social media subterfuge

November 21, 2012

Sally Bercow and Alan Davies  – who you may recall were a little too keen to blacken the name of Lord McAlpine – are not the only prominent twitterati caught abusing social media recently.

Wonga, the so-called payday loans company (that’s “usurer” to you and me, readers), has found itself at the wrong end of a Guardian exposé after systematically attempting to undermine the reputation of its chief  gadfly, anti-payday loans campaigner and Labour MP Stella Creasy. It did so by using a bogus Twitter account to suggest she was “mental”, “nuts” and a “self-serving egomaniac”.

The Twitter account in question was operated by one “Daniel Sargant” – an alias for what Wonga management, when put on the spot, characterised as a “junior employee” – evidently with the idea of suggesting that he or she was an unauthorised maverick. Bearing in mind the likely educational attainments of most junior employees at Wonga, this is a remarkably sophisticated one whose talents are obviously being wasted in the lower ranks of a payday loans company. A more compelling theory – voiced in The Guardian – is that “Daniel Sargant” is none other than Luke Manning, editor of Open Wonga, a website dedicated to educating consumers about the brand. Its inference is based on the fact that at least one of “Daniel’s” blog comments has the same internet protocol (IP) address as a computer used by Manning when, quite separately, he made a comment on another blog. (Manning, by the way, has denied any suggestion that “Daniel” is his alter ego.)

While it is entirely understandable that Wonga should wish to bury its best-known brand attribute of  “4,214% APR”, manipulating phoney Twitter accounts is probably not the way to do it. Not least because this kind of conduct cuts directly across the company’s credo of “Straight Talking Money.”

As does fiddling its Wikipedia entry to polish the corporate facts. And yet maybe, in a perverse sort of way, we should be grateful to Wonga for its underhand, if hamfisted, tactics. Had it not been for a determined attempt to erase any reference to its recent and controversial £25m (they say) sponsorship deal with Newcastle United, I would never have known that a survey of 1,000 fans had uncovered serious concerns about the deal, and the people behind it:

“… fans are disappointed that the club has not attracted a sponsor that enhances Newcastle United’s profile and is not the type of premium brand previously associated with the club.”

Not, admittedly, the sort of thing you want trumpeted about your brand.


Seven-day-a-week newspaper publishing revolution shatters The Mirror

May 30, 2012

The Rabelesian guffawing in The Mirror’s newsroom when Trinity Mirror’s chief executive announced her unlamented departure is now reduced to a sullen whisper.

Who will be next, the hacks timorously wonder as they survey the seismic damage caused by this morning’s fresh round of top-level sackings? Out, in short order, have gone Richard Wallace, editor of The Daily Mirror, and Tina Weaver, veteran editor of The Sunday Mirror. In has come Lloyd Embley (who? – formerly editor of the People) as the new editorial supremo of a “merged” 7-day-a-week Mirror newspaper.

In a classic example of tabloid double-think, Embley told his shell-shocked team: “This is not a slash and burn exercise. Nor is it about managing decline.”

Isn’t it, Lloyd? Difficult to see what else it might be. Certainly not a strategic decision, made from strength. Nor, to use some ghastly marketing jargon, is it “proactive”. Indeed, as so often in the world of newspapers, Rupert Murdoch continues to take the credit, having got there first with the 7-day Sun – while Trinity hobbles behind, a lame second. If the two editors were stunned by the manner of their summary dismissal this morning, they can hardly be surprised by its ultimate cause. All the circulation gains accruing to The Sunday Mirror after Murdoch unexpectedly closed the News of the World were wiped out almost overnight by his introduction of The Sun on Sunday.

If this brutal step-change really is, in the words of the Trinity statement, “a further step towards creating one of the most technologically advanced and operationally efficient newsrooms in Europe,” why on earth didn’t senior management have the courage of their convictions and implement it before?

Because, let’s face it, it isn’t really a step-change at all. And because, where newsrooms and newspapers are concerned, there are more important things than being “technologically advanced” and “operationally efficient”. Like keeping your journalists on side. Which is difficult when you are savagely cutting their numbers to achieve shareholder “value”.

What seems to have occurred here is some highly expedient corporate chicanery. How can it be that Sly Bailey, the lame duck outgoing chief executive, has been allowed to make these changes, changes she would never have dared to make before she resigned? Simple. The new board, and particularly the new chairman David Grigson, needs someone to hide behind, someone who is now totally expendable.

This may not have been Grigson’s only calculus, however. The suspicion is Trinity used this occasion to cleanse its Augean Stables. We’re still waiting to hear the full unexpurgated version of former Mirror editor Piers Morgan’s flirtatious relationship with the truth about phone-hacking, but last week moved a little closer to full disclosure with Jeremy Paxman’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry. Wallace and Weaver were both later contemporaries of Morgan, who stepped down from the Mirror in 2004. Like two Wise Monkeys, they have joined Morgan in a deaf-and-dumb denial of complicity in phone-hacking culture. Which – who knows? – may be entirely justified. But just in case, why not get rid of them at this opportune moment? They are, in any case, very expensive; and they were, no doubt, utterly opposed to the concept of sacrificing one of their editorships on the altar of a 7-day newspaper.

And yet the real casualty here is the brand. Sunday newspapers, and not just red-top Sundays, are looking like an endangered species. Who will be next to join the 7-day bandwagon? The Independent/Independent on Sunday? The Guardian/Observer?

Sunday newspapers are being eroded not simply by shrink-fit publishing economics but by changing reading habits. After all, who these days seeks the wow-factor of a good old-fashioned scoop over their Sunday bacon and eggs?


Why The Guardian’s Three Little Pigs commercial hits the spot

March 3, 2012

“The Three Little Pigs”, directed by Ringan Ledwidge, is the best piece of advertising to come out of BBH in a very long time.

More to the point, it’s also the best piece of advertising to come out of The Guardian, whose bar in these matters is very high.

Editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, explaining the ad’s rationale, makes reference to the title’s “first major brand positioning TV ad for more than 25 years”. That comment, and The Three Little Pigs’ endline – “The Whole Picture” – are informal tribute to another mould-breaking ad of its time: Boase Massimi Pollitt’s 1986 Points of View, seen here:

The verities of professional journalism do not change over the years: accuracy, balance, perspective and meticulous checking of the background facts being high among them. But, my word, hasn’t the challenge of achieving them become incomparably tougher in the intervening quarter century.

Then, journalists only had to battle with their rivals, their editors, their lawyers (and occasionally their consciences) to be the first to stand up often uncomfortable truths. Now, they must also contend with an army of citizen bloggers and social media aficionados determined, moment by moment, to put their own definitive stamp upon the great issues of the day.

Twenty-six years ago, The Guardian’s world consisted of a relatively comfortable tripartite perspective. Now, the Whole Picture is a ceaseless 24/7 kaleidoscope, made possible by near universal access to the internet. How to surf this tsunami of information, while retaining a sense of detachment and independent judgement?

Like it or not, this is the brave new world journalism must embrace, a world Rusbridger dubs “open journalism” in his repositioning statement. “People are taking part in journalism, rather than being passive recipients. That’s a mindset that says journalists are not the only experts in the world, that they can’t give an adequate account of subjects, issues, the world around them, unless they enlist others,” he says.


How The Guardian helped to make Tim Lefroy’s case for the advertising industry

November 4, 2011

Tim Lefroy, chief executive of the Advertising Association, is now a very happy man – and with good reason. At last, he has found the perfect opportunity to evangelise his most cherished belief among an uncomprehending British public. And it is? The unpopular and startling notion, around which he has built the AA’s Credos thinktank, that advertising can actually do some good in society.

The improbable cause of Lefroy’s felicity is The Guardian and its eminent leftie columnist George Monbiot. Monbiot had a full-length rant the other week about the sinister, pernicious effects of advertising on our general welfare, in an article headlined ‘Advertising is a poison that demeans even love – and we’re hooked on it’.

The headline did not disappoint. Below, and at tedious length, were all the usual signs of conspiracy dementia. Apparently, we are all a prey to a small group of highly organised manipulators who “stitch” “the system of hypercapitalism” together. Were these banks, big business, lobbyists, politicians, influential journalists even? Any of these might have been applicable candidates. But, no: they are admen, exploiting the latest, devious, findings of neurobiology to control our minds.

They might wish. Anyone spending time in the chaotic, haphazard world of adland would quickly dismiss any notion that monolithic thought-control is its defining characteristic. Constant politicking and ramshackle pitches more like; it’s an industry which is riddled with insecurity. None of this, however, is of the remotest interest to Monbiot, who is hooked on The Hidden Persuaders myth. Indeed, his thesis could neatly be summarised as Vance Packard II: The Digital Upgrade.

One dividend of this foaming invective is that it has given Lefroy a rare platform to air his views in a national newspaper, by way of right of reply. Wisely, he refrains from counter-polemic. Lefroy makes no overblown claims for advertising’s social utility: “Advertising is not a drug, but neither is it a panacea. It’s not good, and it’s not bad.” All the same, he manages to gently remind us of the dystopia that might result from its absence: no media plurality, little consumer product innovation, no Google. I’d take his point a little further. We know what sort of society we’d get if advertising were entirely expunged from it, because we’ve already experienced it. It’s called the Soviet Union. And it’s chararacterised by long queues for basic consumer commodities that never turn up, shoddy industrial goods and the total suppression of media freedom by a thuggish internal security service.

Another dividend is Monbiot’s serendipitous timing. His column, and Lefroy’s response, happen to neatly coincide with the publication of Credos’ long-matured report on The Contribution of Advertising to the UK Economy. Ordinarily – fascinating though its conclusions might be for insiders – this would not be the sort of stuff to set the public’s pulse racing. But the background noise preceding it may have created more of an appetite for a few dry facts. Among them, that the advertising industry makes a £15.6bn contribution to the economy, double the figure last reported by the department of culture, media and sport in 2008; that, after electronic and software publishing, it is the biggest component in our fast-growing creative sector; and that, broadly defined, it employs 300,000 people.

Go ahead and suppress advertising, George. But in your quest for moral purity, remember the multiplying effect your action will have on UK economic output and other people’s jobs.

All right, advertising may not be a cuddly calling, and the industry certainly has its fair share of rogues and charlatans. But, then, so does journalism.


Who’s to blame for prostituting the integrity of the WSJ and TechCrunch? The internet

October 14, 2011

At first sight, there may not seem much connection between AOL’s recent dismissal of Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, and a spectacular scam at the Wall Street Journal, which this week brought down its European publisher Andrew Langhoff.

Don’t be deceived. There is every connection. Not in detail, but in principle. Both executives were fired because they had prostituted editorial integrity.

It’s fairly evident that neither deliberately set out to do so. Rather, they were attempting to apply imaginative (and increasingly desperate) commercial solutions to a problem endemic in the news information business. Namely, the pernicious effect of the internet – the ‘free news’ junkies’ hourly fix – on traditional advertising revenue.

Arrington had to go because his cavalier attitude to conflict of interest put him on a collision course with Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief at AOL – who was rightly concerned about the impact of his heretical gospel on the rest of AOL’s news assets (chiefly the Huffington Post).

Although TechCrunch, which AOL acquired for $30m last year, is a respected news source, as a free blog it was badly underfunded by the low-yield advertising which was the only traditional alternative to subscription revenue. Arrington’s solution was to set up CrunchFund, a venture capitalist fund specialising in new technology companies. Which aspiring tech company would not trade exclusive stories with TechCrunch in the hope of coming into contact with untold Wall Street riches? Investors, on the other hand, soon came to recognise TechCrunch for what it was: an invaluable source of investment-grade information.

The problem was what happened next. Should TechCrunch journalists, to all outward appearances acting without fear or favour, be obliged to soft-pedal any clients who signed up to Arrington’s fund? The new funding paradigm soon became a very old-fashioned conflict of interest.

The WSJ/Langhoff affair also breached journalistic ethics, but in a rather different way. Officially, Langhoff was fired because he had signed a deal with Dutch consulting firm Executive Learning Partnership which resulted in a series of special reports considered in breach of the WSJ’s ‘unimpeachable’ standards of editorial integrity. In fact, this was only the half of it, according to The Guardian. Apart from trading too much prominence and name-checking, Langhoff also seems to have struck an interesting side-deal with ELP’s sponsorship money (ie, advertising revenue). ELP was to channel money (including, at a later stage, some of the WSJ’s own money) into buying a large number of heavily discounted copies of the European edition of – the WSJ. This action is not illegal nor, strictly speaking, does it break the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ rules (Why not? we should ask indignantly). But it is designed to deceive. Inflated ABC figures give advertisers the impression that the WSJ is a stronger media vehicle than it actually is, which helps to harden rates.

While denying some of The Guardian’s more “malign interpretations”, News Corp – which owns the WSJ through Dow Jones – has nevertheless conceded that Langhoff had to go because he had allowed WSJ to enter into “a broad business agreement” which could “give the impression that news coverage can be influenced by commercial relationships.”

If respected operators like WSJ and TechCrunch are getting up to such tricks, where does the rot stop? The answer may not be very comforting for the integrity of news values in general.


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