The Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted that great story of journalism All the President’s Men for cinema, suggested commercial success was a matter of chance: “Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Since the advent of the internet, we might say the same about media. We’ve got a pretty good idea what people might look at – Katy Perry has 78 million followers on Twitter, up from 62 million in the few weeks since the previous time I looked – but much less idea how we might make them pay to do so. And without readers paying, then how do we fund journalism? How can journalists make a living?
Twenty years after The Daily Telegraph became the first British national title to go online, leading a development that had the great benefit of taking newspapers to new audiences and the great disadvantage of giving those audiences something for nothing, we are still trying to work that out.
A couple of years ago, for example, The Sun erected an online paywall, confident that thousands of readers would pay. This winter it took it down again, having discovered that they wouldn’t. We now have three commercial models: the paywall, which works pretty well for papers such as the Financial Times, which decided early on that its stories were too valuable to give away; the hybrid, chosen by the Telegraph, which allows readers to see a lot without paying but imposes a charge after a certain number of stories; and the free, where advertising provides the funding.
Mail Online, which grew out of the Daily Mail, has become the world’s most popular English language online newspaper. This year it took more than £70 million in advertising and other commercial activities, but its revenues are not rising as fast as those of the print edition are falling. The Guardian has built a huge international audience too, but could never have afforded to do so without funding from the Scott Trust.
Before the internet changed the financial model of publishing, before a new generation stopped buying newspapers, we never much bothered with discussions about funding. Few of the journalists I have worked with stopped to consider where the money came from. For years they addressed micro matters such as stories and by-lines rather than macro matters such as earning a living. Now the pressures are clear to all. Those with higher salaries become targets for redundancy. Those who keep jobs are expected to do more work. People didn’t become reporters on local papers to get rich, but they did think they might earn as much as a teacher. In recent years, many haven’t.
So why do so many people still want to be journalists? And why do so many journalists heading towards retirement look with envy at the openings available to the next generation? The answer to the first is that the essential elements of journalism – the thrill of inquiry, the interest in the unexpected, the sheer mischief – still apply.
As for the second, we may have lost the safety net of clear job progression and secure salaries, but there are new opportunities for those prepared to look for them. For a start, traditional media companies are taking on journalists who can bring them new skills. Next there are companies that are becoming media companies, such as BT, TalkTalk and a hatful of retailers. Finally there are ambitious new websites, some of which are moving rapidly to buy what we would regard as traditional journalistic skills. Have you seen what Vice and BuzzFeed are said to be worth?
This is where we should all take heart. To return to Mr Goldman’s quote, we may not know exactly where the money is coming from, but we are good at knowing where to find an audience. It may take time, but the first will follow from the second. For those who take the trouble to learn a craft, the encouraging sign is that those audiences are becoming confused, sated and ultimately bored by the millions of clips generated by people like them and the stories that amount to no more than hearsay. Bit by bit, they are gravitating towards professionally produced entertainment and news.
That’s good for journalists and good for the NCTJ. Journalists with our qualifications have proof of skills: skills they can take to old, new and as yet unimagined media, skills that employers will pay for.
You can view the annual report for 2014-15 here.