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Ad revenue fall plus sales drop add to print gloom

Media researcher Jim Bilton, in a review of the latest ABC figures for the nationals, adds to the gloom with a startling figure on advertising revenues. He says, in a Media Guardian article, that advertising now makes up 51% of the revenues of national newspapers, down from 60% in 2000.

Bilton points out that this drop is in part due to the cyclical downturn in advertising, but combine it with a 4.5% year-on-year fall in circulations and the stark reality becomes clearer.

His figures include considerable variations, with advertising making up only 44% of the revenue of popular Sundays compared with 61% for their quality rivals.

What this means is that newspapers are having to chase sales revenue from a declining market. Hence, he says, the publishers’ drive to “develop new routes to market, often at a range of cover prices”.

Journalists have long worried that British newspapers were too dependent on advertising but at the moment every penny is needed to cope with transition to a world with the internet.

In August last year when the Evening Standard hiked it price from 40p to 50p, declaring itself to be London’s quality paper, circulation stood at 313,181. In February this year it was down to 266,037.

If every paper was sold at full price, the total retail value last August was £125,275 and in February this year £133,037. That is a modest increase but the promotion costs have been considerable. And what has a fall like that done to ad revenue?

A trading update from Daily Mail and General Trust last month does not shed much light on the performance of the Standard but does say that in the five months to February: “Classified advertising revenues, including those of the Evening Standard, are down by 8% for the same period.”

The arithmetic of newspaper revenues is much more complicated that that but of the face of it picture does not look good.

The view from Independent House is rosier

Sometimes subs do not serve authors well. The tone of the standfirst on Peter Cole’s On The Press column in the Sindy today suggests a tone that is not reflected in the copy. It reads: “Rumours of the death of print media are not only grossly exaggerated, they’re irresponsible and wrong.”

None of the words “grossly, exaggerated, irresponsible or wrong” are among those Cole uses.

While he is not saying everything in the garden is blooming for print he does look for the bright side and takes a swipe at the “prophets of doom”. He believes what is happening to print sales is neither terminal nor catastrophic. He bases his argument on the latest ABC figures for the broadsheets that have moved to more compact formats. He writes:

It [the Berliner Guardian] is selling 3.4 per cent more than its broadsheet counterpart of July 2005. Next to downsize was The Independent on Sunday, selling last month 12.3 per cent more copies than in its last days as a broadsheet. And finally, The Observer is selling 4.3 per cent more copies than it did as a broadsheet in November 2005. The Telegraph titles, which have remained broadsheet, have lost sales over the period since The Independent launched as a compact – the daily 4.1 per cent down, the Sunday 10.5 per cent down.

That is a rather selective list and over at the Observer, Peter Preston takes a rather different view concluding: “There now. Everybody sitting uncomfortably and feeling pretty miserable? Because that, in short, is the story.”

If only sales figures were the only indicators there might be room for optimism that the figures could be turned around. But they are not. The advertising landscape is moving and newspapers, even with the aid their online versions, cannot hope to retain their share of the past.

Printed newspapers are not going to disappear suddenly. Some will survive for a very long time while those that go first will be probably those that would have been vulnerable if the internet had never been invented.

Cole draws encouragement from last month’s publication of a survey by the World’s Editors’ Forum. It found that 85 per cent were “very” or “somewhat” optimistic about the future of newspapers.

When I looked at this survey my first caveat was that it was international and included Asia and Africa where much of the print media is booming.

I have another worry. It is whether the term newspapers is being used for the print versions or or is the term extended to include the online offerings. I tend to use the wider definition of “newspaper” and put “printed” in front of it if I mean the paper version only. But in various statements and reports it is not always clear.

And for the benefit of Cole and others in their grey bastion of Independent House which daily grows to more closely resemble the battleships which are often parked outside, cutting editorial staff is not what anyone else sees as a solution. It is worth repeating the words of Bertrand Pecquerie, director of WEF, commenting on the survey:

Eighty-five percent of senior news executives see a rosy future for their newspaper, and it’s quite a surprise.
Editors recognize competition from online sources and free papers, and in turn are making efforts to adapt to 21st century readership. They know how to effectively make the transition to online journalism without reducing editorial quality. Editors-in-chief realise that content matters more than ever and cutting newsroom resources is not at all an effective solution: the reshaping of news will take place with journalists, rather than at their expense.

Columnist calls UK press ‘worst in the west’

Hyperbole is a useful tool for columnists so perhaps Polly Toynbee’s assertion today that the British press is the “worst in the west” should be left to rest. Perhaps, it is best to celebrate the variety of voices in the pages of the Guardian, including Max Hastings who she castigates for an article in the Daily Mail, John Pilger and Harriet Harman as well as Toynbee, and pass on.

Yet there is something about the venom with which Toynbee writes that does need comment. Here is her final paragraph:

What is so squalid about these newspapers is their use of figleaf sermons to cover their real business, done with corrupting chequebook, threat, intimidation, invasion of privacy, paparazzi aggression and vicious cruelty. Labour should use this disgrace to reign in chequebook tell-all by public servants, from those at the top such as Christopher Meyer to those at the bottom such as these sailors. It’s time to look again at privacy legislation, a quid pro quo for the Freedom of Information Act the press abuses with petty assaults on government. The media is in danger of making government by any party impossible.

Without examples she accuses the press of abusing the Freedom of Information Act and suggests tougher privacy laws. The Government — present and future — would love that. It is in line with her recurring theme in recent months that the media is being unkind to the Blair ministry.

And she singles out from among those civil servants, ministers and military officers who have been criticised for writing too soon after the event, Christopher Meyer, our former ambassador in Washington who wrote DC Confidential.

Why is he the one person named if it is not because he is now chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, the print media’s self-regulatory body? Possibly some explanation has been edited out.

As for the claim that we have the worst press in the west, it is a sweeping statement. There are probably no reasonable criteria on which it would be possible to draw up a table of countries with the best and worst press.

British newspapers are highly competitive because of the predominance of a powerful London-based national press. This commercial pressure does lead to unseemly behaviour. Toynbee is right to point out the hypocrisy of papers that failed in their bids to interview sailors and marines held in Iran and then attacked the government for allowing the interviews.

Few other countries have a similarly dominant national press. The idea of a national press is scarcely known in the US and in France the two biggest selling nationals, Le Figero and Le Monde, together are outsold by Ouest-France, based in Rennes.

Our system results in some nasty battles over stories but it also provides the competitive environment in which government is held to account. And yes, the FoI Act is one of the very valuable tools for which we can praise the present Government (provided it gives up the plan to restrict its use).

Putting the focus on ‘news you can use’

Media executives have been beating a path to Tampa, Florida, for several years to see the future: the converged newsroom that brings together the Tampa Tribune, WFLA TV and tbo.com. This week the Tribune announced that it was cutting 70 jobs of which “fewer than 10” will be from the 280-strong newsroom.

Lucas Grindley who works not that far away in Sarasota and is an advocate of convergence, says, “Not even convergence was a strong enough tactic to overcome the continuing drop in revenues felt across the industry.”

We need to be very careful about drawing any conclusions for the UK from what is happening in Florida where there are 42 daily newspapers serving a rapidly growing population of around 18 million.

The Tribune faces fierce competition from the St Petersburg Times across the bay and smaller newspapers in the region. Its plan is to withdraw from some fringe areas, focus on “hyper-local news” and trim half-an-inch from its page width.

President and Publisher Denise Palmer is quoted in Editor and Publisher saying:

Our newspaper is experiencing the challenges of changing reader needs and fundamental shifts in spending by our traditional advertisers. We are reducing resources in areas that are in decline and investing in areas of growth, including local news and the Internet.

Some neighbourhood editions are to be merged with weekly papers owned by the group. Palmer told her own paper:

We know from research that our readers want news that is hyperlocal and useful to their daily lives. We plan to provide more focused products to better serve changing reader and advertiser needs. At the same time, we will accelerate efforts to operate more efficiently.

While news markets are very different in the US even there the Tampa operation is unusual in owning both the paper and the TV station. But the emphasis on practical local “news you can use” is relevant to the UK.

A couple of weeks ago one of my oldest friends in journalism visited us in Suffolk, picked up a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times and said: “This is what all newspapers will be like in a few years.”

While sailors sell their stories, parents are barred from telling of “nightmare”

While sailors and marines are given the freedom to sell their stories of being seized by Iranian forces, a couple are barred by the law from telling the full story of the court hearing in which they were cleared of harming their baby son.

The contrast of these two stories goes to the heart of the relationship between the media and government.

Controversially, the military gave the 15 who were held by the Iran permission to sell interviews to the media. The one woman, Faye Turney has been paid a reputed £100,000 to talk to the Sun and ITV. The paper this morning headlines it: Faye my ordeal, with three sub-heads — I feared being raped by Iranians, Stripped to knickers in dingy cell, and The truth behind our TV smiles.

This plays to an image of Iran which serves the Government’s present policy. Peter Wilby in Media Guardian today comments:

The press is always willing, as it was over the capture of the sailors, to criticise a British government for putting its service personnel in harm’s way and for not responding with sufficient resolve when they get into trouble. But it treats foreigners, particularly Muslims, as always in the wrong. The Iranian regime may be as evil, aggressive and oppressive as the US and British governments want us to believe, though I find the case that it poses a signifi cant threat to anybody even less convincing than the case made in 2003 against Saddam (remind me when Iran last invaded another country). All I ask from the press is a little scepticism, a bit of inquiring journalism and an occasional attempt to test out the idea that Iran’s rulers are just normal, blundering politicians making it up as they go along. It’s not much to ask. Is it?

There are other wider questions about the press paying for interviews and the way in which the very fact of money changing hands is most likely to ensure that the seller provides the quotes the customer wants.

At the same time Jake and Victoria Ward are desperate to tell the story of their 18-month “nightmare” before they were cleared of harming their baby son William who they had taken him to a GP with a swollen leg which turned out to be fractured.

The Guardian reports that Cambridgeshire County Council, for whom they both worked, took proceedings against them. They were both suspended from their jobs during a 14-month investigation by the police.

Then a county court judge ruled that the council had not crossed the first threshold for taking a baby into care. “There is no cogent evidence that these parents injured their son,” said county court judge Isobel Plumstead.

Because family court cases are heard behind closed doors even these details would not be publishable if a high court judge had not given permission for the BBC to broadcast a video diary of the family’s fight to establish their innocence.

But the doctors, social workers and police have their anonymity preserved, unless another court rules otherwise and Mr and Mrs Ward are barred from discussing aspects of the case not mentioned in the judgments.

Their solicitor, Sarah Harman, told the Guardian the couple would keep fighting for their right to tell it.

There can be no question here of protecting the identity of the family and the idea of open justice demands that the full story should be known. Mr and Mrs Ward (there is no suggestion that they are asking for money to tell it) should have the freedom to tell their story.

Yet they are barred from talking fully to the press while the 15 sailors and marines are given the green light to talk for as much money as they can get.

In November last year the Newspaper Society warned that while it welcomed Government suggestions to improve access to family courts it regarded proposed reporting restrictions “as a step backwards and a serious erosion of the principle of open justice”.

Openness seems too often in England today to depend upon whether it serves the interests of government and its officials.

Do all victims of crime need support?

Marcel Berlins argues in his Guardian column today with his usual power against the £15 surcharge on fines introduced on April 1 to help pay for better services to victims of crime.

My own experience makes me wonder whether the money already going to support victims could be better used. When my bicycle was stolen from the car park of the flats where I live when working in London, the first official response was a letter from Tower Hamlets Victim Support offering me counselling.

I would have put it down to isolated idiocy but for the fact that a few months later my wife reported the theft of a plant pot and contents from the front of our house in Suffolk. She received a letter from Suffolk Victim Support offering counselling.

Polar bears work media magic

Journalists have long know that baby animals pull in the readers and viewers. But what is so special about polar bears? Today the story of Knut, hand-reared in Berlin Zoo, has the world gripped. Fortunes are being made from soft toys and Bloomberg reports that the zoo’s shares have doubled in value. Knut has even made the the cover of Vanity Fair in a montage with Leonardo DiCaprio.

It all seems a bit of a replay of the birth of polar bear cub Brumas in London Zoo in November 1949. In 1950 the zoo’s visitors went up by a half to three million. They have never reached that figure again.

Doubts on claim that online users read more

Only yesterday did I catch up with the latest Eyetrack study from the Poynter Institute and I started to write a post about it. I took the quick news reporter in a hurry approach read the key findings and wrote:

The idea that online readers of news have the attention span of a gnat is dubunked by the latest EyeTrack study from the Poynter Institute. They found that a much larger percentage of the text of a story was read online than in print.

The figures, presented to the American Association of Newspaper Editors last week found on average 77% was read online, 62% in broadsheets and 57% in tabloids.

But something was niggling. I stopped writing and pondered. The EyeTrack07 results are surprising and I felt I needed to know more about the methodology and the material used. It seemed to be one of those studies that should be treated guardedly until the results were replicated by other researchers.

What other factors could there be? One small point was my surprise that about 4% of hits on individual Worldblog posts have been on the “print this post” links I added recently. The number has surprised me and suggested a higher proportion of people than I had expected were uncomfortable with reading on screen.

With far more insight, Neil Sanderson had raised a question about the study on Monday, writing:

It would be helpful to know how the online stories compared in length to those in broadsheet and tabloid papers. It is possible that they were shorter, due to the online practice of chunking content – breaking it into more digestible pieces. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of online stories that were longer than their print counterparts. This can happen when a story originating in a newspaper is enhanced and updated for the online edition where space is virtually unlimited.

He also posted his reservations as a comment on the Poynter site and they brought this response from Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the institute:

Good question. During some editing/deeper digging this week, we have found that short stories were more frequent in online and that likely had some influence on the overall result.

However if you back short stories out and analyze results only for medium and long stories, those are read, once selected, as thoroughly online as in print.

In his blog Sanderson comments:

So, rather than saying that online readers read more, Poynter is now saying they read as thoroughly as in print. That’s a big difference.

And describing stories as “medium” or “long” really doesn’t solve the problem. The percentage of each story read ought to be judged against the length (word count) of each story. The story-length issue isn’t just important for comparing online versus print reading patterns, but also for comparing broadsheet versus tabloid.

So it looks as if the Poynter people themselves fell into trap of going for the quick headline and having to pull back later. There is, I think, a lot of importance and value in this new study but it is probably better to wait for the more considered analysis later in the year.

TalkTalk about about bad service

Listening to the on-hold music at Onetel TalkTalk’s call centre for 45 minutes without any response left me ready to take the advice of the refrain which was along the lines of, “We have to get together because the revolution is coming.” After three days without broadband, it can’t come quickly enough.

Who is prepared to join me in forcing Charles Dunstone (chief exectuive of Carphone Warehouse which owns Ontel TalkTalk) into the tumbrel and pulling it to the guillotine?

Their phone line has been giving pre-recorded assurances that broadband services were working normally and it was not until late on Saturday that I was able to get through to a human who admitted there was a problem.

At another point during the weekend there was an announcement that no one was available and please call back during office hours. Is that office hours in India or the UK?

This morning I was told the problem continued and they hoped, but could not promise, it would be resolved today. I had already been told that the connection at my London flat was working so I had no alternative but to come to town earlier than planned.

I started using Onetel when it was owned by Centrica and had no difficulties. After the take-over by Carphone Warehouse things seemed to running more or less as they had been. I extended the services I buy from them sticking to Onetel because it was cheaper than the “free” TalkTalk broadband. But as Onetel has become increasingly integrated into TalkTalk the quality of service has declined.

Charles Dunstone seems to be just about as committed to blogging as he is to customer service. At the start his blog promises all the latest updates on the free broadband service. The most recent entry was on December 23.

By comparison leaving customers without internet access for three days with no explanation must seem to him to be pretty good. I will be moving my two broadband/phone lines and two mobiles to another supplier as soon as I can.

More consultation on FoI changes

The Government has announced further consultation on its plans to neuter the Freedom of Information Act or, as Press Gazette puts it, kicked them into the long grass.

The new 12 week consultation period will effectively mean that the decision will not be Tony Blair’s but will be taken by Gordon Brown, provided he moves into the top job. Details of the new consultation are at the Department of Constitutional Affairs website.