Dream a little dream…

May 6, 2009

Today I’m taking a quick trip to Cloud Cuckoo Land as I’ve decided that I’m going to win the £110 million Euro Lottery jackpot on Friday.

After treating myself a nice little mansion (complete with an indoor five-a-side football pitch) and a swanky pair of leather trousers (always a good look for a 30-something chubster), I’m going to use the change to buy myself a fair sized regional newspaper.

But this wont be a rich man’s folly (ok, maybe it will be a bit), as I honestly believe my newspaper will make healthy money. And if doesn’t, then at least I’ll still be doing something worthwhile with my not-very-hard-earned cash.

Yes, I’ve read all the blogs, articles and listened to the poisonous pundits predicting the inevitable demise of the regional newspaper. And I’ve seen the depressing financial statements of the big players.
I’m also a paid up member of the adapt-to-new-technology-or-die school.
But I think the reason many newspapers will cease to be is not because the newspaper is a dying platform.

It’s purely down to greed.

If the big companies could accept that the 30% profit margins of five and ten years ago will soon be about 10% to 15%, and that that the £180million of 2005 could fall as low as £80million in the 2010, then they’d have a chance at survival.

It wont happen of course. The shareholders are still demanding unrealistic dividends so the bosses will keep making cuts to try and meet them. They’ll do so until the last remaning journalist dies of exhaustion or it dawns on the final reader that he’s simply being fed rewritten press releases.

But I still believe in newspapers as a medium. TV didn’t kill the cinema or radio, and the internet didn’t kill books. Audiences fell, but they remained viable.
The smarter among you will point out that newspaper audiences are falling at a more alarming rate than those, but I think the figures will eventually bottom out.

And if you marry the remaining audiences to other platforms, then the product might still work.

So, how would my newspaper work? Well, basically as a not-for-profit venture.
I’m already stupidly wealthy remember and I’m pretty sure I could live with just the one hoveryacht.

I’m well aware that a stand-alone product probably wouldn’t cut it, but as I’ve not completed the internet yet, I’d employ smarter people than myself to play around with the multi-platform diversification malarky.

My goal is simple – a newspaper (or news product) which can sustain local journalism. While I wont care about increasing my profits every year, I’m not completely stupid and I’d want it to at the very least break even, rather than eating into the tens of millions of pounds sitting in my Barclays Super Saver account.

In very simplistic terms, the paper I work for currently can pay all its staff and overheads for the year in about six or seven months. Everything else is money in the bank (or rather subsidises other parts of the business and keeps the shareholders in hand cream). And this is in the middle of a recession.
Things would have to get a lot worse for it to start losing money.

My last post but one explains a bit about how my current paper is making money so I wont bore you too much here. Basically it’s by not being (as much of) a slave to rigid corporate policies and not giving away adverts so cheaply it harms the product.

So with the profit I think I can make, I can strengthen the business by reinvestment, putting cash aside for bleaker times and even sharing some of it about with those who helped to make it – either with genuinely fair salaries or, God forbid, bonuses.

As for staff, I’ve already got a mental list of the most talented individuals I’ve worked with for the more plum positions.

It’s a dream and a very flawed, naïve dream. But maybe one of us die-hard news types will strike it lucky and give something like this a go.

In the meantime I better get back to doing three people’s jobs.


Now for some good news

April 15, 2009

At a rather frustrating distribution meeting last week, I was pleased to get some good news about how well my paper is doing commercially.

 

It is now the third most profitable free weekly paper in the group. That may sound like a small thing, but to me it’s a massive milestone.

 

It’s important to note that although my rag is a free paper, it’s still a proper newspaper with 30 pages of news, two pages of letters, six pages of ents and five pages of sport. Pretty much all of which is original, local content.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the more profitable frees is recycled content from the daily with virtually no overheads attached to it.

 

This post may sound rather self-congratulatory, but its point is to show how far my paper has come. And more importantly, how a little bit of leeway from the non-editorial bigwigs has helped the paper blossomed.

 

Those who know me will be aware that this is my first editorship. I’ve been in the chair for two years now, but six months ago I was terrified that my short career as the big man was about to come to an abrupt end.

 

The paper was losing money, pagination had plummeted and the editorial space was constantly being squeezed.

 

The paper in itself wasn’t too bad and it was the second biggest in a market of three free papers.

But more and more the obsession with margins and targets started pushing the importance of its editorial content way down the list of priorities.

 

The advertising ratio targets in particular became the bane of my life. 65% of all space had to be filled by ads. The target was set during a time when the paper had 20 full pages of property advertising. This had fallen to just four pages by the time I took over.

But the bean counters were adamant that these targets had to be met. Arguments that we could get a higher yield per ad with a better news product fell on deaf ears.

And as I was only allowed to bring the paper up or down by eight pages at a time, I was spending more time sitting with the advertising manager, calculater in hand, to try and meet these ridiculous goals than I was sorting out the editorial content of the paper.

The paper got steadily smaller and tighter, and while the we actually increased the number of ads, we were making much less per page than ever before.

 

I was also working without any full-time reporters as both my talented young hacks had moved on and weren’t replaced. We survived for six months with myself, my deputy, a two-day-a-week reporter and one freelancer a week. I was lucky to find exceptional freelancers at various stages (and only the one turkey), and the paper was surprisingly not actually that bad.

 

But with the industry making drastic cuts across the board, I could feel the axeman not just breathing but hyperventilating down my neck.

 

Worse, I had bought my first house just a few months before the credit crunch kicked in and my wife was expecting our first child.

 

So when I was called in during a week of annual leave to meet the MD, I was mentally rewriting my CV and praying for a not-too-souless PR job.

 

Instead I was shocked to be told that the paper had been sold to one of my rival papers – and a smaller paper at that.

Bizarrely, I was not best pleased with this at first. I had spent months trying to best these guys and they had become if not quite an Arsenal, then a West Ham to my beloved Spurs.

 

But my initial reaction was wrong, once the papers had merged, with myself and my deputy keeping our jobs, life and the paper got better. I now have two full time reporters again and I can also take county-wide copy from the daily title. For the first time in years, my paper is also covering court stories again.

 

The best thing about the merger was how much emphasis was put on the editorial side of the paper.

The thinking was to create a good quality, open newspaper, and then to try to make it work financially.

News was put before profit, even if it was just while the paper bedded in.

It was expected that it wouldn’t even make money to start with, but the profits would grow along with the paper’s reputation. In actual fact the paper made a small profit straight away.

 

The first edition looked superb (despite a few minor irritations), with twice as many pages as before and more open pages. More importantly the advertisers were prepared to pay proper rates for as their ads were not competing with five or six others on a page.

Our weekly revenues are now twice that of my old paper, and this is in the middle of a recession.

 

It’s not all been plain sailing and for the first few weeks I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the longer commute and extended hours. But my week is now perfectly manageable, and more importantly I’m proud of what I’m doing again.

 

The paper is a long way from being perfect – another reporter would vastly improve things – but we’re holding the local authorities to account better; we’re getting good debates going in our letters page; feedback has been largely positive and I feel like an editor once more rather than a manager, a firefighter or a ‘news facilitor’.

 

So with all the doom and gloom about at the moment, I still have some faith papers can survive, but only if their editorial content is treated with respect.

The days of the 30 % profits margins have gone, and yes, that £180m profit is now just £120m.

But the fact is profits can still be had, and good profits at that.

 

 


Council journalists aren’t ‘best value’.

March 26, 2009

I had a quick Twitter debate this week with two associates regarding the Dagenham council ‘newspaper’ jobs and how I was outraged at the ridiculously high wages it was going to pay its ‘reporters’.

The 140 character limit of Twitter can make such debates tricky, and I don’t think I made my case clearly enough, so it’s a good job I have a blog, read by at least four people, where I can win such arguments (even if it’s in my own head).

As you may or may not be aware, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is launching The News, a “new fortnightly community newspaper”.

I can see nothing wrong with the council newsletters most local authorities put up, as they don’t pretend to be anything other than the council communicating its message (I’ve read so many press releases I’m starting to sound like a press officer here).

But this newspaper idea is very dangerous and will undoubtely be confusing for many readers.
A council spokesman said The News would be a newspaper concentrating “on community rather than hard news”. 
In other words it will still be a pro-council product which will carry only positive council stories, but it will be posing as a professional vehicle driven by journalists

If that’s not bad enough, The News will have a very damaging effect on exisiting local newspapers – if not put them out of business entirely.
Not only will the council pull some of its own advertising away from the local press (even without statutory advertising this could be several tens of thousands of pounds), but according to the Press Gazette, the paper will seek to be “self-financing by competing for advertising from the commercial market”. In other words it will actively look to steal advertisers from the Dagenham Post.

I saw an excellent comment on one story about this. The commenter made the analogy of you owning a sweetshop, and then the council opening a sweetshop next door using tax payers money to get started. The council sweetshop can continue to be subsidised by taxpayers money as long as it needs to, so it will have none of the risks of your sweetshop and can sell its sweets cheaper.
Your only hope of survival is that your strawberry bon-bons might taste a bit nicer as they wont have been pumped full of artificial chemicals. But will enough people notice that your lemon sherberts are better for you when they cost so much more?

Councils are supposed to be there to serve their communities. But this move is doing the exact opposite.
Not only will it potentially kill off an exisiting business, it will also seriously damage local democracy in the process because without the Dagenham Post, who is going to hold the politicians and bureacrats to account?
It certainly wont be The News.

Back to my original point – the salaries The News will be paying its staff.
It’s journalists will be paid between £29,223 to £31,353, its sub editor £30,591 – £33,081 and its deputy editor £33,081 – £35,841.

To put this into context – a trainee journalist on a regional paper can currently expect to earn £14,500 – £16,000. A newly qualified senior about £18,500 – £19,000.
I’m the editor of a weekly paper, and I’d be on parity (give or take a grand) with one of these council ‘journalists’.

So my question is, how can the council justify paying so much above the going market rate?

The obvious argument that most people (well, most journalists) will make is that actually the council is paying a fair wage and its newspapers who are the Scrooges.
And they’d be right. The knowledge and amount of work put in by the modern journalist is woefully rewarded. We’re being ripped off, we all know that.

But that argument can only be taken so far. My point is that these council journalists – who are actually going to be doing less indepth, less challenging jobs than the rest of us – will be rewarded far too richly with taxpayers money for essentially betraying their trade.

To steal an awful councilese phrase, the taxpayer is clearly not going to be getting ‘Best Value’ (and I wonder whether The News will be littered with such awful language).

The council could easily fill those jobs by paying ten grand a head less.
I guess one the reason they’re paying so much is that they are hoping to attract some quality journalists, and they know that such reporters will see through their dirty little agitprop rag but will be tempted by the filthy lucre.

I won’t resent anyone who takes up one of these posts as it’s hard to live on a reporter’s wage, but I won’t be able to respect them.


Is journalism the new media studies?

February 25, 2009

There’s been a few interesting views recently on the training of journalists.
It follows the news that the number of applications to do journalism degrees has risen by 24 % this year – that’s more than 13,000 applications for courses starting in September.

It’s a frightening statistic given the state of our industry. Every day another paper is slashing jobs and centralising production.

Nick Davies (he of Flat Earth News) http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=43159&c=1 makes some interesting points about the quality of lectures.
He states: “A great many of them are genuine crap, taught by people who haven’t the faintest idea of how to do the job.”

I think he’s spot on – there are simply too many courses and some of them just aren’t good enough.

Eastern Daily Press deputy editor Paul Durrant  http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/training/090218counciljob.shtml goes further, stating that he isn’t ‘bothered’ about journalism degrees.

It saddens me but journalism degrees have become a populist, soft option. The media studies of noughties if you will (and having done a media communications and English degree, I know all about soft options).

Journalism still looks cool to outsiders – I’m sad enough to admit that my press card is clearly visible whenever I opened my wallet. And with the rise of the internets, news and information has never been more in our faces, so it’s not surprising that lots of young people are interested in the profession.

But the massive increase in courses is dangerous. Many are uncredited and I know of at least two which are taught by people who have never been journalists.

Lets get this straight. If you want to be a journalist, there is absolutely no need to study journalism at university. What is the point in a course that lasts three years teaching something which is 95% learnt on the job?

As Paul says: “I’m bothered about NCTJ qualifications – I’m bothered about vocational training. I’m looking for maturity, passion and confidence. In terms of currency in the industry, I need to know someone’s got 100wpm shorthand, that they know what a Section 39 is.”

Apart from the NCTJ qualification – which is in dire need of a major overhaul – I agree totally with this. You can have all the journalism theory in the world but if you lack the personality and the passion you’ll be a shit reporter.

A journalist needs some law, shorthand and local government knowledge before they get started properly. These can be picked up in a pre-entry course which lasts between four months and a year.
They also need work experience. As much as they can get.

As an editor and formerly news editor, I have dealt with many work experience types.
And without execption, those who had studied or were studying journalism degrees were poor. Many simply did not have the personality (you don’t need to be pushy, but a certain amount of drive and common sense is a minimum requirement) while others were vastly unprepared for the world of work, and particularly the news room.

But the most worrying and annoying were those who thought that three years in the classroom, a piece of paper saying they achieved a 2:1 or even a 1st, was proof enough that they knew it all already.

In reality, they know no more about the industry than the kid straight out of sixth form who has been doing work experience for three months, and far less than the kid who did a four month pre-entry course. Worse, they tend to pick up more bad habits which need to be beaten out of them.

It’s depressing looking at some of the comments made by the journalism students below Paul’s article. I feel really sorry for them as they’ve clearly not received proper careers advice.
I can see it now – they tell their guidance counsellor they want to be a journalist, so the counsellor hands them the list of journalism degrees.

If you want advice – email the editor of your local rag. Many of us (although not enough) will care enough about the future generation of hacks to respond. (You might need to email them twice though as we do get a bit busy).

A candidate with a degree in say English, politics or even philosophy, definitely has an advantage other applicants who don’t as it shows a level of intelligence, that they can stick something out for three years and of course generally universities help people mature.
However, if it’s a degree in journalism, then I’m sorry, you’re immediately at a disadvantage if you send me a CV.


Who neesd subs anyway?

February 13, 2009

Sub-editors are “a layer that can be eliminated”, according to former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade.

http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=43078&c=1

I’m going to ignore the comments at the bottom of the PG story which point out Roy’s own failings, and look at his arguments instead. And I haven’t found a copy of his speech, so I’m trusting the PG report.

First of all, Mr Greenslade suggests that journalists are now “highly educated” and can sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

I really don’t know where to start with this one, but I’m going to resist the urge to push my tongue into my bottom lip and make some incredibly un-PC duh noises.

Even though I am someone who can string a sentence together, I am always grateful for an extra pair of eyes. Afterall, even world renowned authors have their copy checked.

As a trainee hack, my writing was probably cleaner than most, but it would have been insane to let that naive 20-something write straight into the paper.

Actually, one of my district papers was that stupid. All my copy for the Smalltown Obscurer went straight on the page, maybe with a spell check if the sub could be arsed. And the hopeless editor certainly never read it.

To be fair it generally worked ok – but this was because it was my home-town where I knew practically everyone so took huge pride in my work.

Of course I made a few errors, but they were usually simple things which the sub or editor could have picked  up. I think it was incredibly unfair looking back that I had to carry the can alone.
But most trainee hacks go where the work is and don’t necessarily have the strong local knowledge.

Mr G also stated that “We’re now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don’t need to have their work changed.”

That use of “of course” really winds me up.

The statement reminds me of the awful (but enjoyable) Judge Dread film (Stallone at his best) where these clones are created in a couple of hours, complete with all the combat skills of seasoned soldiers.

Does Mr G really believe that hacks come out of journalism college knowing everything they could possibly need to know?  Even though many believe they do, this is just nonsense “of course”.

Apart from law and shorthand, nearly all journalism is learnt on the job. Having a strong sub-editor who can talk a reporter through their mistakes and mock their ignorance is a vital part of creating a well-trained hack. Without the guidance of subs, particularly in a reporter’s formative years, the overall quality of reporting will fall incredibly quickly.

And I couldn’t let this point pass without looking at the “well-educated” reporters we have these days. At every paper I’ve worked, there have been one or two outstanding journalists, but these are always outnumbered (often heavily) by journymen, idlers, wastrels and charlatans.

I also know of a few reporters who can bring in some fantastic stories and have excellent interview techniques but can’t write very well. I’d much rather have a reporter like that and help them develop their writing than a handful of spoon-fed monkeys who write perfect prose.

Mr G argues that all of this isn’t ideal, but commercially it might be necessary.

Again, I just can’t agree with that. Poorly subbed writing can quickly damage a paper’s credibility. Readers will be less inclined to read a paper littered with spelling mistakes and errors, and a loss of readers means a loss of advertisers.

It may see saving on the wage bill in the short term, but it damages the product, and thus its commercial value in the long run.

Mr G also believes there are two types of sub-editors – those who work on local or natioanl rags to templates and the creative types who write Sun headline.

I have to wonder whether Mr G has stepped into a regional newspaper office in the past ten years.

Templated pages are used, but not all the time. Pretty much every page is created on the differing merits of the story, headline, pictures and other furniture.
While the front few pages of my paper always have the same shaped adverts, the pages certainly don’t follow the same rules every week and look very different.

Mr G then makes a point, perhaps contradicting his previous arguements, that it’s not that we don’t need subs, but rather we can hire someone for £1 an hour to do the same job in a developing nation.

The local knowledge is the strongest counter to that, but there are other arguments.

As an editor I imagine it would be very difficult to try and talk through what I want from a page over the phone. To do that when English isn’t the individuals first language would make it even tougher.

I can see a time when technology will improve and the role of the creative sub will be less  – say a programme which can put all the various aspects of a page together like a jigsaw and suggest several layout options – but we’re not there yet.

And I don’t believe there will ever be a time when copy does not need to be subbed, unless we’re happy to become a txt spk nayshun of dunderheads.