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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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Will Rupert Murdoch really jettison James as NewsCorp’s heir?

October 19, 2011

It’s possible that Rupert Murdoch allowed himself the ghost of a smile on hearing that Michael Wolff – one of his most vociferous and tiresome tormentors – had been defenestrated from his fastness at AdWeek.

We might like to think of AdWeek as a trade magazine covering the US advertising, media and marketing scene. But for the past year it has been hijacked by Wolff’s anti-Murdoch agenda and shamelessly exploited by the former editorial director as a scandal-sheet covering every last detail of the so-called “Murdochcalypse”.

Murdoch will have been a good deal less pleased by what he read in the New York Times yesterday. Wolff is a gadfly, but the NYT is a seriously influential enemy which has taken it upon itself to drive a wedge between Murdoch and his presumed heir, younger son James.

It is not so much the content of the article as its timing that is so troubling. Murdoch and his brood are just days away from NewCorp’s annual general meeting that could theoretically see them unseated as directors. The last thing they need is another stinkbomb.

As it happens, the NYT article fails to come up with anything stunningly original. Provocatively titled ‘In Rift Between Murdochs, Heir Becomes Less Apparent‘ , it dwells on tensions – real and possibly imagined – between the two men in the hope of creating so much further bad blood that Murdoch père will eventually perform an Abrahamic sacrifice of his son’s career prospects in order to save his own skin.

Certainly Murdoch senior has been performing a skilful dance of the seven veils to protect his reputation. First he closed News of the World, and abandoned his cherished bid for BSkyB.  When that didn’t work, he sacrificed his faithful retainers Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks. The tide of effluent still failing to ebb, he contributed millions, individually and corporately, to the Milly Dowler Fund.

For a while, the NewsCorp share price appeared to bounce back. Then came the hammer blow: a major shareholders’ revolt, partly sustained by new evidence of malpractice in the NewsCorp empire, this time at The Wall Street Journal.

Something like 25% of investors are expected to vote against the re-election of the Murdoch board on Friday. In almost any other public company that would mean curtains. But not at NewsCorp, where – unluckily for the institutional rebels – nearly 40% of the voting shares are owned by the Murdoch family.

So not much is really going to happen in the short term. Except some searing humiliation, fanned by the NYT. The worse it is, the poorer James Murdoch’s chances of eventual survival.

And that’s before his return for further grilling by the House of Commons media select committee, over the porkie pies and half-truths uttered during his last appearance.


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.


Murdoch gets tough with internet joyriders

May 8, 2009

Rupert MurdochFighting talk this week from Rupert Murdoch, chairman of NewsCorp, as he confidently predicts that “the current days of the internet will soon be over.” What he means is the parasitic “freebie” culture of content-scraping and Google News, which is beggaring publishers and commoditising news. Murdoch plans to put an end to the punters’ joyride by imposing a subscription gate around some of his principal titles, like the Sun and the Sunday Times online.

He thinks the successful Wall Street Journal model can be rolled out into general news. But is he right? And will other follow where he leads?

More in next week’s column.


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