Long life

Alexander Chancellor: Do you think you should read this piece for free?

If young people want to join the media, they must figure out how to make online sites more profitable

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

I was in Nottingham last Sunday to address university students about journalism. The occasion was a one-day ‘media conference’ organised by the Nottingham University students’ magazine, Impact, for the purpose of encouraging students to embark on journalistic careers. The conference, it promised, would give them a ‘kick start’ in this direction. I hadn’t realised until I got there that this was the intention, for I had planned to say how it was now almost as bad an idea for a young person to try to go into journalism as it had been, in Noël Coward’s song, for Mrs Worthington to put her daughter on the stage. I decided to tone down my remarks a bit when I saw how warmly many of the students cherished this ambition and how they clutched at every encouraging piece of advice offered them by other visiting speakers. When, for example, Paul Radford, a former sports editor of Reuters, told them that there might be opportunities for one or two of them to help with the coverage of next year’s Winter Olympics at Sochi in Russia, he was almost mobbed by a dozen or so would-be applicants.

I didn’t want to be a wet blanket, to say anything that might dampen their youthful enthusiasm; but all the same I couldn’t conceal my gloom about the present condition of the fourth estate. Where were the new jobs going to be when every news organisation in the country seemed to be getting rid of people instead of hiring them? What was the future of newspapers going to be when they were losing circulation at an ever-accelerating rate? I felt obliged to point out there wasn’t a single national newspaper that hadn’t lost circulation during the past year — the Daily Telegraph by 4.75 per cent, for example; the Guardian by nearly 10 per cent, the Sun by more than 12 per cent, the Financial Times by nearly 14.5 per cent, and the Independent by a staggering 20 per cent, leaving it with a poignantly low circulation of around 69,000. The Times did best, having experienced a decline of less than 1 per cent; but then its circulation now, which is around 400,000, is under half what it was only 13 years ago. I think it was the editor of this magazine who pointed out in a recent blog that if the Guardian — down now to under 190,000 from 494,000 in 1987 — continued to decline at its current rate it would have only one reader left by the end of the next decade.

All newspapers have websites, of course, and the Guardian’s online edition is, by contrast, hugely successful, with 84 million unique visitors each month. But nobody seems to have the faintest idea how to get people to pay for news on the internet. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, has reportedly been predicting that there might be a ‘paperless’ Guardian in five to ten years’ time. Maybe by then it will somehow be profitable. But Peter Preston, Rusbridger’s predecessor in the job, has written that the advertising revenue currently generated by the Guardian’s website is only one eighth or so of the nearly £40 million annual losses incurred by its print and online editions.

Earlier this year, an international conference of prominent journalists, broadcasters, digital experts and news organisation managers, meeting at Ditchley Park to debate the question ‘Is serious journalism still possible?’, concluded that there was still a huge demand for this ill-defined product, but no known way of selling it at a profit. They could suggest nothing better than ‘relentless experimentation’ in the search for successful ‘business models’, feebly expressing faith that where demand existed, supply would somehow follow. In the meantime, who was going to train journalists in their work, and who was going to pay for the in-depth investigations and permanent foreign bureaux that were essential to serious journalism?

Naturally, being old and nostalgic, I told these good students how much jollier journalism had been when the only people who practised it were the drunks of Fleet Street, and everyone else hung on their words; when readers knew their place and were content to get an occasional letter published in a newspaper; when there were no ‘citizen journalists’ to challenge the authority of us sozzled ‘professionals’. But I didn’t want to depress my audience, so I hope the editor will pardon me for having advised them that a good way into journalism was to offer The Spectator something for publication, provided it was unpretentious, clearly written and about anything genuinely interesting, which couldn’t be anything about themselves, their thoughts, their feelings, or how they spent their holidays.

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  • martin stott

    Depressing but accurate picture. I helped launch that student magazine – Impact – 28 years ago. We won a Guardian Student Journalism Award for best new paper. I had 20 great years in journalism. I now run a PR agency – at some point I needed to earn a decent living, which I fear corroborates what Alexander is saying.

  • berosos_bubos

    I’d be happy to pay for an on-line subscription but I refuse to subsidize the modern metro PC view that buries me in taxes and ignores my concerns. It is funny as with the Times and Telegraph behind paywalls, even if not foolproof, the Guardian and Independant comments sections are over-run with contributors who don’t represent their traditional readership.

  • Heather Peat

    We just have to find a way to encourage people to want to read more, perhaps less emphasis on playing on line games.

  • R Dent

    in reply to the headline apparently so – perhaps a paywall that can’t be circumvented by disabling cookies would be worth a punt?

  • bugalugs2

    Of course it could simply be that the new media can’t support the cost base, and particularly the staff salaries that those in the old media are used to … ain’t technological innovation wonderful! Get used to it guys, you’re in a massively oversupplied ‘industry’ and the only way salaries can go is down. If you don’t like that, do something else.

  • bugalugs2

    “The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, has reportedly been predicting that there might be a ‘paperless’ Guardian in five to ten years’ time”

    Well, it’s already pretty much newsless, as every article is little more than journalistic opinion, so getting rid of the last vestige of being a newspaper would seem logical.

    “feebly expressing faith that where demand existed, supply would somehow follow”

    Don’t you mean they hoped where supply existed demand would follow. Of course, it could be that what they call ‘serious’ journalism, often an excuse for disingenuous polemic, is not demanded and that the lack of demand they whine about is genuine lack of demand.

  • Sunshine Pete™

    Yes, I think should read this piece for free. I just did, and free was a very fair price. Why would anyone want to pay for the opinions of Alexander Chancellor or anyone else? Content must be free at the point of consumption, that is the lesson the internet is trying to teach, and the smarter pupils learned it long ago.

  • Richard Ferguson

    Principal problem for the media are the pay walls as currently configured. People no longer wish to pay for a single product (eg, the Telegraph or the Guardian) and, instead, want to flit among publications (eg, read sections of both the Telegraph and the Guardian). At some point the printed press – or more likely a software firm – will develop a sufficiently robust platform where you can flit for a fixed price across multiple publications and the writers (or perhaps the publications should they somehow survive in some kind of vague shape resembling what they look like now) get a small slice of that fixed payment. Thus good journalism is rewarded, barriers to entry remain low, the punters get what they want in abundance and at a fixed price.

    Technically it’s probably not that difficult but the printed press will have to go into a real meltdown before they co-operate with such a model. It works with music (where prices are variable and not fixed), so it can work with print media (ie, its online successor).

  • rob232

    I’d be quite happy to pay to read the Spectator on line. This isn’t possible. The only alternative is to pay more than a hundred and sixty pounds a year to have the magazine sent to Spain.
    I pay two pounds a month to read the Telegraph and would be happy to pay to read the Spectator. I don’t want to subscribe to the magazine. Times have changed.The print edition is too expensive and always arrives very late.