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Frontline debate: Is traditional media dying and does it matter?

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Frontline debate: Is traditional media dying and does it matter?

“The Guardian’s sales have gone up for four months. Up very slightly, but up. And that’s including two price rises.”

“You’re still losing quite a lot of money though. Should we worry about that?”

“Er, yeah but it’s fine because we’re going to solve it…”

If the Guardian hadn’t strongly secured its financial future last week by selling its 50.1 percent share in Trader Media Group for £600-700 million, the above from executive editor Merope Mills would have perhaps appeared worryingly vague.

Mills, along with deputy editor of The New Statesman, Helen Lewis, editor of BuzzFeed UK, Luke Lewis, and Pete Picton, deputy publisher of Mail Online, gathered in Paddington’s Frontline Club last Thursday for the panel debate “Is Traditional Media Actually Dying and Does it Matter?” (which we couldn't attend but the Frontline Club helpfully film).

There was some initial positivity surrounding the state of the industry from Picton and Luke Lewis, who said:

It’s an amazing time for journalism. Not just for new outlets like BuzzFeed, but the traditional ones are thriving as well. The Telegraph made £60 million profit last year – that’s a lot of money. The Guardian had a brilliant 2013 with some of the best scoops they had in history.

2013 was certainly a good year for Guardian reporting – the Edward Snowden/NSA scoop is arguably one of the biggest and most important stories of the decade – but continued losses in the tens of millions (£30.9 million in 2013) cannot be called brilliant, even with sustained gradual reduction of those figures as well as support from The Scott Trust.

With an extra £600-700 million in its back pocket, the paper has found itself some much-needed security and a lot more breathing space, but the commercial strategy for its website still revolves around display advertising and doesn’t drive anywhere near the revenue that its declining print audience currently delivers.

The Daily Telegraph is profitable, but most of the profit comes from the paper which has an average age of 61 – having the same size audience in 20 years is unlikely. Tony Gallagher’s sacking last week over his rumoured reluctance to accept forward-thinking digital strategy to the same extent as ex-PBC saver Jason Seiken also highlight’s the paper’s troubles transitioning to digital in an age when sites like BuzzFeed are already generating substantial revenue from a viable commercial model that runs only online.

The importance of measuring success

The hot topic of "cross-platform metrics" came up when an audience member asked the panel if it was possible to transpose some of the analysis websites can use to measure an article’s success across to print journalism.

Luke Lewis highlighted the distinct advantage online publishing has over print:

It’s baffling to me trying to imagine myself as a print journalist. How do you even know whether your article has been a success? I met someone from The Daily Mail and asked him how he measured success, and he said “Well…if the editor likes it,” and that’s his only measure. That seems crazy to me because we have so many different ways to measure it.

Native advertising was also discussed, with the general consensus that native ads aren’t an issue as long as the all-important separation of editorial and advertorial church and state is made clear, which most sites manage effectively.

Paywalls also featured towards the end of the evening, with George Brock asking each of the panel members in turn if their employers are planning on implementing paywalls any time soon. Pete Picton pointed out that The Mail already has some paid-for content:

The Mail has Mail Plus, which is an app you pay £9.99 a month for, and it is the newspaper in tablet form. That is a very different business model for the Mail Online, which is about free-to-access, creating scale and then monetising that scale. Either of those models have to make money.

Mills said the Guardian has no plans for a paywall, and highlighted how integral free-to-access content was for the paper last year:

We currently have no plans to implement a paywall. It doesn’t mean we never will, but because we are open in America and anyone can access that site where Glenn Greenwald wrote, a person called Edward Snowden read that blog, got in touch with us, and gave us the biggest story in the world last year, which wouldn’t have happened if we were behind a paywall.

And as for the New Statesman? Content from the magazine is currently held for a week after publication before appearing on the web, but Helen Lewis hinted that a leaky paywall may be a sensible option for the website at some point:

My resistance to paywalls is dropping now that I have seen things like the leaky paywall. What the Telegraph does is very clever – all the Telegraph blogs are free and are the kinds of articles people would share on a day-to-day basis, but your regular readers who come back there every day and want their news every day will hit  the paywall and may be tempted to drop £2 in the pot.

I think that’s not a bad model for small publishers like us. Russell Brand’s incredibly long essay for us last year got well over half a million hits. That was down to it being very shareable, and we wouldn’t have got that if it was behind a paywall.

Positivity alone won’t turn back the tide

All print media is undergoing a revolutionary change where consumers are choosing when, where, and how they consume content. The entry barrier to publishing has been progressively lowered since the rise of the internet competition is challenging established media’s position harder and faster than ever before, which presents a great opportunity to young journalists entering the industry. But a greater variety of digital opportunities is separate to the health and viability of the national press.

Optimism on the part of newspapers like the Guardian and Mail Online about the industry’s future is nice to see, but it doesn’t change the cold fact that newspapers are already behind when it comes to viable business models for the online world, and the print parts of the business currently propping those revenue figures up are in decline.

People talk about whether sites like BuzzFeed are the future of funding journalism, but they are already funding journalism – they are generating revenue, they are hiring journalists, and they are flying them to Kiev and Davos to cover global news events.

Will traditonal newsrooms realise that a “13 ways we need to get serious about our future” listicle is a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed?

That's a point every media business – whether it has more than 100 years of print history behind it or a couple of years of digital-only success – needs to keep in mind.

What do you think? Did you attend the debate? Do you think some of the panel's positivity was misplaced and the industry's approach to digital is still blinkered by a legacy of print, or are there reasons to be positive about the future of traditional media? Get in touch below the line.

Video

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Stougard used under a Creative Commons licence.

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