Peter Kirwan's Long View: Is publishing getting rid of the wrong people?

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B2B Media, Digital Media, Newspapers

Peter Kirwan's Long View: Is publishing getting rid of the wrong people?

Job decline and growth by industry

As this chart shows, the number of jobs in advertising and market research has nearly tripled since the late 1970s. The number of people employed in broadcasting, film and music production has risen, too as the Office for National Statistics data shows.

But publishing? The blue line shows where digital transition is wreaking most (perhaps all) of its havoc: in text-based media, otherwise known as publishing.

In late 2001, at the height of the boom, employment in publishing in Britain reached an all-time high of 175,000. Since then, it’s declined by 35 percent to 114,000. The number of employees producing newspapers, magazines, books and what ONS still charmingly describes as “directories and mailing lists” has never been lower.

Some will respond with a shrug. Technology, they will say, has done its usual job, replacing human workers with silicon and code. CRM systems have made sales people more efficient, so we need fewer of them. Journalists can do more with less, thanks to a remarkable outpouring of new tools.

But the problem with this explanation is obvious. Technology has done the same for advertising agencies, broadcasters, film companies and music labels. Yet businesses in these sectors seem able to exploit new opportunities. They seem to be able to generate new jobs. This isn’t the case in publishing. What’s happening in text-based media is unique. And there’s no sign of it ending. Indeed, since the financial crisis began 2008, the trend has only accelerated.

For most of the media industry, digital transition might be challenging, but it isn’t life-threatening (at least not yet). For text-based media, things have started to look uncomfortably different.

Changing industry, changing roles

This raises some tricky questions. One of the most important concerns something that editors, publishers and senior executives can control. As the workforce grows smaller, who should leave, and who should stay on?

Arguably, the people you want to keep in a situation like this are the ones who really know – or stand a chance of understanding -- how to manage digital transition. People like this are mostly found below board level: they’re the managers who form a human connection between strategy and tactics. Managers like this know their markets. They should have a feeling for what readers and advertisers might pay for.

However, middle managers of this kind arguably find themselves living a life that’s more precarious than ever.

Last week, I spoke to three of them – all in their 40s, all with significant experience in digital, print and much more besides. Between them, during the past decade, they’ve been employed by over a dozen media companies, mostly in the B2B sector. Each of them has been made redundant in the past year. None of them seems bitter: by now, it’s an experience with which they’re very familiar.

The picture they paint of the industry is not reassuring. One thing they all recognize is what one calls “the revolving door”.

This involves arriving at a company, ready to put digital plans into action, only to leave a few years later with only a modest amount achieved (for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment). At this point, the cycle begins again, with headhunters calling up on behalf of companies eager to exploit their know-how.

Comfort zones have dwindled. Today, when a product starts to fail, higher-ups get nervous very quickly. Margins are thinner and offer less of a cushion. Fixes must be quick, or there will be consequences. “I was living in a world populated by headless chickens,” one publisher told me.

Repeated reorganizations are a symptom. Take the case of a big publishing division with perhaps six unit managers. In a reorganisation, two might be made redundant. The four remaining managers take on a broader spread of responsibilities. Then another senior individual joins the team, charged with running “strategy”.

The result? “We had a positive buzz going around the place for six months, with lots of planning,” one publisher tells me wearily. “Then... nothing. The implementation just didn’t happen.”

All three publishers point to a reluctance to back plans for digital transition with investment.

“For all sorts of reasons,” another publisher told me, “the logic suggested we stop print publication in the case of our largest brand first. Everything pointed that way: the audience, our global circulation, everything.”

Upstairs, there was hesitation. Back came a proposal that the company’s smaller brands should go first. It didn’t matter much that these smaller brands were highly profitable, and that most of their profits came from print. They had to go first.

The alternative seemed risky and expensive. “To shift our biggest brand to where it needed to be,” says the publisher, “we needed to start charging for online content, invest in data and develop events further. There was just no cash available for this, zero for investment. It was cheaper to fiddle around on the margins.”

“Ultimately, these decisions are made at a much higher level in the company,” the publisher told me. “At that level, they can only see an outline of revenues, costs and profit. They cannot see the market, or the operational logic.”

There are other ways of seeing this disconnect. Another publisher dispassionately recalls a managing director who was “great at strategic discussions”, but “totally out of his depth with the nitty-gritty of actually getting there, the tools, skills and investment required”.

All three of the publishers I spoke to last week told similar stories. Despite fears he might be getting too old and expensive, one of them remains intent upon going back through the revolving door. “I might give it another three years,” he says. This time, however, he will try to avoid legacy environments. “Wherever print exists,” he says, “it has become a total millstone.” 

Time to make a clean break?

Of course, there are other options. Another of the publishers I met has abandoned Medialand. Over the years, his biggest complaint has been the industry’s conservatism, its inability to think outside tram lines laid down during the 20th century.

This former publisher now works for a large retailer. Although he runs a fair-sized chunk of the company’s online operations, his boss is younger than him.

He recognises the argument about investment and argues that complacency is endemic. “I spent a lot of my career arguing that sales people ought to regard Google as their biggest competitor,” he says. “But the sales teams just carried on in the same old way, judging their performance against the same old limited set of competitors.”

He adds: “Google was the category-killer that destroyed classified advertising. Now I work for a different kind of category-killer.”

The third of the three publishers I met recently had an interview with a large government-owned business that may soon be privatised. He was asked about his experience with “change management”. Having spent his working life in an industry where downsizing is habitual, he was able to tick this box. As for the rest of the job, he shrugs. “It’s operations,” he say, without much enthusiasm, before adding: “It is a proper, grown-up role, with a proper grown-up salary.”

Temptation looms largest for the most talented, who can make the transition to other sectors easily. “I don’t want tenure for the rest of my life,” says the undecided publisher. “But the merry-go-round is getting silly.”

Three publishers, three career narratives. Admittedly, this is not much of a sample. Some might say that interviewing disillusioned middle managers isn’t the best way of assessing the industry’s health.

Maybe so. But the common criticisms are striking: pointless reorganisations, stalled transformation projects, senior managers who fail to connect tactics with strategy and board directors who are too remote from markets.

One of the publishers I met last week has already left the industry. Another may soon follow him.

 Are we keeping too many of the wrong people, and letting too many of the right ones go? Increasingly, as the industry continues to shrink, this is a question that needs answering. 


A note on the data

The ONS asks employees about employment (which results in the Labour Force Survey). It asks employers about employment, too (these questions result in a data series known as “Workforce Jobs”). The ONS seems to consider the latter data more accurate, which is why we’ve used it.

Workforce Jobs includes data series for full-time employment and self-employment.

The description “publishing activities” (division 58 in section J of the 2007 standard industrial classification codes) is as close as we can get to a description of TheMediaBriefing's readers. It includes the following:


It’s worth noting the inclusion of software publishing in this category, which includes places as diverse as Microsoft and one-man app-developing start-ups in Shoreditch. If we were to strip out these jobs from the data, the numbers for what most of us define as “publishing” might well look a good deal worse.


Main image of Dole Queue Monsters is by Colm_wood and used under a Creative Commons licence.

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