Readers or advertisers; journalism's chicken and egg conundrum

I was drawn into an interesting debate on Freelance Unbound yesterday, as a result of which I’ve been thinking a few things over. In print, the expectation is usually that comments expressed are hard and fast opinions, but one of the things I love about blogging is that it affords the opportunity to think aloud and therefore to shape ideas. So what follows is a bit of thinking aloud, prompted by the thought that producing material primarily for advertisers rather than readers is proving to have backfired. Let me eleborate.

The death of print – a synopsis

At the risk of unfairly paraphrasing, the many obituaries for print boil down to this; print publications traditionally survived on advertising and advertisers no longer advertise in print because print readership is falling. So far, so logical. Except…

Chicken or egg?

The readership of print titles has, in fact, been falling for decades. The reason is not, I would argue, solely because of the web. It’s because there are more titles competing in the same market. The reason this isn’t recognised is because much of the debate about the media focusses on news and newspapers.

There is only one more UK national newspaper in the market now than there was 40 years ago. But newspapers recognised long ago they couldn’t survive just by providing ‘news’. They dealt with the “crisis of journalism” of the age by expanding into the features area and attracting magazine readers when they realised that they couldn’t be first with the news in the age of TV and radio. Analysis, colour, background, human interest – these have all been staples of newspaper journalism since TV and radio discovered (although went on to lose sight of the fact) that they could be first to report events and so offered a unique attraction that newspapers couldn’t replicate.

In the world of magazines, it’s a different story. A time traveller from 1969 would be startled by the sheer variety of magazines in every niche that are on offer in a newsagent’s. New market niches have appeared and new markets too – where were the celebrity gossip and men’s mags in 1969? The result is that success has been measured in hundreds of thousands rather than millions.

More means less

So readerships of individual titles were falling long before advertisers moved away. But the underlying trend was that more titles didn’t mean diversity, because many of the titles in the same market were owned by the same companies. IPC pretty much owned the entire women’s weekly market before Bauer came and shook things up, for example. And Bauer shook things up by increasing the availability of the product by striking sale-or return deals with newsagents which ended the practice of big media companies forcing small outlets to take the risk of ordering bulk copies. This, allied to strong editorial brands which hooked the readers who found it easier to access the product, enabled Bauer to lay the foundations of its now dominant position in the UK magazine publishing sector.

Following the money

So fewer people read specific magazine titles than they used to, but for a long time there were more people in the magazine-reading market. Media companies got advertising on the basis of a portfolio of titles, while media titles – especially individual newspapers – didn’t. Unfortunately, this meant that the measure of the success or failure of a title became the advertising that it could attract. Which led to the blandification of the market as magazine content, and especially covers, were dictated by advertising rather than editorial departments. It’s why most media senior executives come from the sales rather than the editorial side, and why for all the titles on offer, you’re pretty much buying the same magazine whatever you chose.

Why did the readers stop reading?

I’ve argued why the readership of individual titles has gone down due to the fact that there are more titles, but there’s another reason for the loss of readers. Most of those titles are boring. Editorial direction is dictated by marketing needs, so content is designed to keep the advertisers happy rather than to attract and stimulate readers. The result is that readers are bored, they don’t buy the bland products on offer. And so the advertisers pull out.

All of the above above will no doubt be characterised in some quarters as the ramblings of a deluded purist who doesn’t understand the economic realities of the age. But I’d ask you to look at just where the ‘visionaries’ who truly understand the game have got us. They’ve chased the advertisers for so long they have reduced the worth of their product, to the point where advertisers and readers are questioning the value of paying for the product at all.

Ironically, it was the contract publishing sector which first understood this. I remember reading an interview with Ekow Eshun, former editor of Arena when it was a proper magazine and then director of the ICA, who talked about his time editing the BMW magazine as one of greater creative freedom than he’d known for years. The big brands realised they needed something original and true, and so in some strange way, the market demanded proper journalism. For a while, the contract publishing sector was the place to be – far from the dead hand of the marketing department-spawned publishers who worried that their magazine wasn’t the same as everyone else’s.

I’ve argued before that the assumption that journalists never understood the commercial side of the trade was nonsense – the art of the finest of the legends of the trade was not only to find the story but to get people to read it. The mistake was to forget that the way to attract readers was to give them something attractive to read.

Opportunity knocks

So. The current wisdom is that journalism is in crisis because advertisers don’t advertise. This assumes that publications only ever survived because of advertising. But some publications survived because they had enough readers prepared to pay a cover price that would keep them going. Many of the women’s weeklies, following in the footsteps of Take a Break, do so. TV listings magazines still sell in huge numbers despite the competition from free alternatives and online and onscreen competition because people want the product.

It is possible to run a viable publication primarily by attracting readers. Especially with the technology and production processes now available. This doesn’t mean using the technology to drive down production costs, it means focussing on creating the best possble product in order to attract readers.

Surely what the current crisis shows us is that there IS a value in producing a quality product – and I don’t use quality as a highbrow term. Chasing the advertising rather than creating a product that advertisers want to chase seems to have caused many of the problems the trade faces. It could be argued, could it not, that the current turmoil in the trade presents the opportunity to rectify that mistake?

#Journalism #mediarevolution #print #publishing

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