Where the Europeans lead the Americans must follow
Monday December 12, 2005
In the US I hear the same lament from fellow hacks everywhere: We must save newspapers! They are being threatened by the internet, declining circulation, shrinking revenue, greedy shareholders, illiterate youth – everyone is to blame, it seems, but the papers themselves.
The country’s second-largest newspaper company, Knight Ridder, has been forced on to the block by a large stakeholder and there are doubts about whether proper buyers can be found and whether some of its papers will survive. In Philadelphia, journalists from a Knight paper and local bloggers are even banding together to seek some means of salvation. Meanwhile, other major publishers are constantly announcing more layoffs or confessing to darker financial figures. And with each new blow, the chorus of hacks grows louder and more plaintive: somebody has to save newspapers before it’s too late!
There are British parellels, of course: for Knight Ridder, read Northcliffe or Trinity Mirror. But on a recent Europe trip, I also heard a different tune. In the US, we may be trying to save the past, but in Europe some publishers are trying to leap to the future, to get past paper.
The Guardian recently held a management meeting to explore what comes next after the company’s conversion to its new, Â£80m Berliner presses, and I was invited to talk about blogs and other apparitions from media’s future. But before the PowerPoints even began, the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, stole my opener when he said that the company might well have just ordered its last presses. Bear in mind that presses last only for a few decades.
The same day, I read an interview in the International Herald Tribune with German media baron Hubert Burda, who said: “Printing will not go away, but I do not plan to open a single new printing plant.” On the flight home, I came across a Business Week story about publisher Random House, owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann, under the headline, Digital Is Our Destiny. And then I saw Press Gazette’s interview with part-time European Rupert Murdoch, who spoke of the internet not as a grim reaper but as a challenger: “One has to stay awake and race to stay up with it,” he said, “or if you get enough brilliant people around, maybe you can get ahead of it.”
What is the difference between American publishers and others? In Press Gazette, Murdoch credits competition. “The people of Britain are uniquely lucky to have such a great choice of newspapers and news, whereas in America you don’t,” he said. The monopoly papers in most American cities are “overwritten, boring, and elitist, not a reflection of the general mood in the public,” their circulations are falling, and their business models are “certainly under threat”. Still, journalism will not die – nor, truth be told, will all newspapers. But papers cannot prosper and grow as they are. It is not sufficient merely to save them.
So what comes next? The Europeans sing a chorus, too, but in a major key. Burda’s refrain: “News has now become a commodity, thanks to the internet, so we must differentiate ourselves in other ways. Content alone can no longer win. You must build and interact with audiences … We now concentrate on using social software to build closer relations with the communities of readers around our magazines.” Relationships. That is what Burda builds now. That is what Murdoch just bought for $580m (Â£335m) when he acquired online community MySpace.com. That is what we talked about at the Guardian retreat. The internet allows our readers to have relationships not just with our content and brands but with their own content and with each other, if we’ll let them.
American editors and publishers came to define themselves less by their role in the community and more by their medium, as proprietors of presses, owners of content, controllers of distribution. But my friend and fellow blogger Hugh MacLeod advises instead that “newspapers should stop seeing themselves as things, rather a point on the map where wonderful people cluster together to do wonderful things.” Exactly.
I don’t know – or care – whether you are reading these words now on paper or online. I know only that you are reading the Guardian because you have a relationship with it as a living beast you either like or like to argue with. The medium would not matter a bit if only advertisers were wise enough to value readers equally across any medium. Until advertisers learn, publishers will be saddled with the high cost of having to produce paper. But the wise publishers, the ones I came across in Europe, are eager for what follows and are just figuring out how to get there.
So the idea that the presses we now own may be our last is not cause for moaning and mourning. It is cause for investment and invention.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant and blogs at Buzzmachine.com