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Industry 'failed to tackle online threat' says Reeves

A former regional editor has launched a devastating attack on regional newspaper owners for failing to respond to the threat of the internet.

Marc Reeves, who until last Christmas was editor of the Trinity Mirror-owned Birmingham Post, claimed the industry had shown itself to be “structurally incapable” of rethinking its business model after it had been rendered “obsolete.”

Writing on his blog, Marc also dismisses the idea of newspaper paywalls as “wrong-headed.”

The blog is intended as a first draft of a speech which Marc, now editor of The Business’s West Midlands portal, is making to the West Midlands CBI on Thursday about the future of news journalism.

He wrote: “I spent the last 15 years of my newspaper career regularly attending industry conferences in which the threats and opportunities of the internet were endlessly discussed and analysed.

“Pretty much everything that has come to pass was predicted, but what did the big newspaper groups do? Very little that was right, it turns out.

“Saddled by a shareholder base that had grown used to the cash cow returns of a monopoly, the regional newspaper industry in particular was structurally incapable of adopting the entrepreneurial approach that is the only option available when almost every aspect of your business model is rendered obsolete.

“So, where are we now? Hundreds of newspapers in the UK alone have shut. Thousands of newspaper staff have been made redundant. Readership numbers and revenues for those titles that survive are a fraction of where they were just a few years ago.

“What’s left for them? Cue the desperate hope that so many of them are attaching to Rupert Murdoch’s decision to make readers of the Times and other newspapers pay to read the titles online.

“They pay for a newspaper, so why not charge them for digital access? This is such a wrong-headed argument I hardly know where to start to demonstrate to you its folly.

“Let’s start by looking at the very premise that you pay for a newspaper anyway in the first place. Well, you do, but that’s all you do – you pay for the very paper you hold in your hand. Your 70p goes absolutely nowhere to meeting the full costs of what you’re reading – the journalists’ salaries, the IT and all the other component parts of complex business producing a highly perishable manufactured product.

“The difference is subsidised by advertising or the depth of a proprietor’s pocket – or both. If consumers were truly ‘buying’ and therefore valuing the journalism itself rather than the means of delivery, they’d happily pay £5 per copy of the Daily Rag. But of course they don’t – and won’t ever – but that’s exactly what paywall fans think will happen online.”

Marc also had strong words for his former employers over the ‘newspaper war’ that has erupted in Birmingham between Trinity and Chris Bullivant, who recently launched the new Birmingham Press.

He berated Trinity for “humouring” the entrepreneur by counter-launching its Post-Lite in response to the new venture.

“When hard market facts tell us the media business is only going in one direction, you have nostalgists like Chris Bullivant recapturing days of yore and launching old-style newspapers – and what’s worst, big players like Trinity Mirror humouring him by spending money on counter-launches when they should be moving their brands online ever more aggressively,” he wrote.

He suggests the future of journalism will lie in low-cost business models such as and in journalists getting “down and dirty in the guts of what can turn a small idea into a successful business.”


Tut tut (07/06/2010 11:03:28)
If you’re going to plagarise Mr Reeves’ blog in the name of “churnalism” then at least have the decency to include links which work!!!

Nick Turner (07/06/2010 11:14:27)
Hundreds of newspapers have shut???
(agree about the link)

Paul Linford, Editor (07/06/2010 11:30:49)
Link has now been fixed. Surely this is not so much ‘churnalism’ or ‘plagiarism’ as reporting something interesting that a prominent industry figure has said?

Donald (07/06/2010 13:25:14)
It’s all well and good for Marc Reeves to be saying this now, but as a newspaper man for 20 odd years, most of that time in senior positions, isn’t he partly to blame? Or is he just playing the old game of ‘I’ve spotted the problem and I’m shouting about it so I can say I didn’t help cause it.’ This speech smacks of journalism lecturer syndrome – he fails to acknowledge how things might have changed since he left. When he was editor of the Post, he might have had sight of the balance sheets at the Post, but he doesn’t any more so how can he have any idea if the Post Lite is making money?
As for people paying for content, he might be right but only time will tell. If people will pay, it’s possible they’re more likely to pay for access to a whole newspaper than a few articles on a business website, which is where Marc believes the future is. He sticks all his content behind a registration system, which is effectively a ‘buy now, pay later in spam’ paywall. As media punditry goes, it’s got a lot of self-interest about it.

RT (07/06/2010 13:51:48)
Agree with Donald. Marc’s a decent bloke, but it’s easy to carp from the sidelines (with, presumably, a decent [ay-off wedge from Ms Bailey in his back pocket.) He certainly didn’t sing this song when he was editorial director at Trinity South, overseeing many of the cuts he now complains of.

XNEWS (07/06/2010 14:51:39)
Mr Reeves is right.If reginal newspapers want to really be successful with on-line content they need to get serious about their business model.
I recently went to view a Kent based newspaper sight on a Saturday because a disastrous fire had destroyed a shopping site.Guess What?not a word reported.Probably because it was a weekend followed by a Bank Holiday and no staff on duty.
How can a business be called serious with that level of disinterest.

Steve Dyson (07/06/2010 15:23:10)
I agree with Marc that not many paywalls, except for the most specific and specialised of content, will work. What might work for newspapers, however, is just not uploading ALL content like they currently do. At least not until it’s spent a few hours on the market in print. And no, I don’t mean ‘public domain’ news… if it’s known about, on a voice-bank, etc, get it up there on the web, and fast. But if it’s a true print exclusive, an in-depth feature that no-one else has got, why put it on the web before your paid-for paper is even on sale? To quote from a recent skit on this, it’s like selling your tasty Mars Bars for 60p a time, but saying to the public you can have free, fun-sized ones, as many as you like, at the same time. Not a great way to market products if they’ve got something special about them. Tease, hint, boost, but perhaps be a bit bolder in shouting about the print quality out there…

Sandy (07/06/2010 16:28:35)
Methinks a certain amount of self-interest in Marc’s views… He’s running a web-based business now. Technological advances are not the only reason regional newspapers are failing.

Old Timer (07/06/2010 17:06:13)
Re Steve Dyson’s point – isn’t it that policy which handed the Express and Star the online exclusive of the infamous Gareth Barry letter? Yep, that’s the future.

JP Staff Number (07/06/2010 17:22:57)
I would suggest the decision-makers (many of whom have hardly visited a newsroom, let alone worked in one) would do well to speak to people on the ground level. While the thought might horrify them (dirty hands), how about at least speaking with editors about what might or might not sell before going ahead with half-baked schemes. I would also suggest investing in staff rather than slashing the workforce which would help develop th
e web in the long run. As things stand, for many if not most newspapers, the web is a ‘bonus’ for some hard-pressed hack (whose drawn the short straw) to upload when they can free up a few minutes from the coalface. By investing, the bosses would also be ‘enhancing their product’ (Copyright: Management speak) and have something people might: a) Be included to search out on the web, b) Consider paying for.

Harold (08/06/2010 08:49:00)
I agree totally with this, but to me this lies firmly at the door of editors. They were all firm believers in the power of print and were unbelievably naive when it came to realising the possibilities the internet provided, as well as the dangers posed. In Northcliffe, papers had in-house web people, then got rid of them, now it employs web editors again in-house. Everything was in place, but the old guard did not and cannot understand the possibilities of social networking and what younger online users want. Journalists are not much better as again, the very nature of their jobs, certainly in the recent past before specialised online roles, means they are print-centric.
We had the obsession with videos (all good and well IF the video is interesting and exciting) and the insistence that everything published in paper was printed on the net.
Paper’s focus needs to change. Life for most young people starts at 6pm and goes on until the early hours. Journalists and photographers need to tap into this, go where they go, do what they do and use the likes of facebook, twitter, iaps etc etc to target these people. They are the future.
Sadly, journalists are still mostly into normal working hours, because of the overnight print times and because there is no willingness to change.
I don’t think anything can be done to prevent print decline, but a more youthful, thoughful approach to online content could at least salvage something from the mess that has been created.

steve pain (08/06/2010 10:39:11)
Well well.
We seem to have a great number of people who have opinions about newspapers. Pity none really understand what sells a local regional newpaper – the E&S still does. It provides local news on local issues – and long may it do so. People – ie readers – still buy it. One can only wonder why the Birmingham titles have failed so miserably. Probably because the endless stream of so called ‘editors’ failed to understand what their readers really wanted. News – local news. Not online. At their newsgents, so they can take it away, read it and think about it. That’s the value of news in print – it gives the reader a chance to think about it, not looking at it on a laptop on a train or a bus. And by the way, reporters still work unsocial hours – nine to five will get you nowhere.

Hengist Pod (08/06/2010 13:44:30)
Trinity Mirror set up a super-duper deluxe Midlands digital team, saying ‘this is the way of the future – we must embrace it’, then disbanded it. Various examples of toing and froing, ie deciding to do something re digital then back-tracking have prevailed since, the end result meaning they are not really much further forward. Interesting that Johnston Press have done likewise. Reminds me of that Dill the Dog character always chasing its own tail and going round in circles. I don’t purport to have any answers but someone needs to find some soon and paywalls are certainly not the way forward

Harold (09/06/2010 18:15:07)
Steve pain – you’re right in saying the older end of the readership/ circulation area want quality print, but you have to interact with young people to understand how they access information. They DON’T read papers – they are a different generation. But they will follow online stuff that interests them, even if it is nights out, gigs, anything they do. It’s why community website can thrive and will thrive, because they are not tied to writing all the worthy stories and can do lifestyle. Bigger publishers must continue to do what they do, but old-fashioned news won’t woo the new generations. Rightly or wrongly, they don’t want to read misery spreads. They want to share what they have, watch their friends, share their interests. It’s about time the older newspaper people realised this and stop making decisions off the top of their heads based on what THEY think.

Happy Hack (10/06/2010 16:17:38)
Well said Harold and very true!