Here’s a Trinity Mirror spokesperson commenting its latest local paper closure: “We focus on markets where we are able to grow audience and revenue. It’s for this reason we’ve been forced to close free weekly, the Crawley News and its website”.
Not a startling revelation: we know that advertising has been retreating from newsprint for years, although the shuttering of the website is surprising.
But the announcement was somewhat disingenuous because audience is not really the problem. Given that it is a free title, the publisher controls the level of distribution.
What really hurts is the lack of sufficient advertising to turn a profit. And the motivation of a publicly quoted company is not about serving readers, but about serving advertisers.
There are loads of readers in Crawley, which has a population well in excess of 100,000, and there is plenty of community news to report.
Trinity Mirror knows that, but it doesn’t want to reveal the brutal truth: profit outweighs public service. Business trumps journalism.
Newspaper companies rarely admit that reality, although one US publishing company’s internal “manager’s guide” was altogether more candid.
Erik Wemple, writing in the Washington Post, discovered several illuminating home truths in an internal “manager’s guide” produced by the owner of 50 papers in Texas and Arizona. Here are the relevant passages:
Many companies in our industry have wrongly divided their focus among many customer groups. We do not. Our customer is the advertiser. Readers are our customers’ customers.
In other words, we are selling advertisers access to our audience. And we are selling our audience to advertisers. We are just the middle man, taking a profit on the turn.
Sales are the lifeblood of the company. Sales calls are the primary contributing factor toward sales, so it is clear that the top priority at all of our newspapers is the sales department.
This is not a reference to circulation, of course. “Sales” refers to the selling of advertising space. And it logically follows that…
Staffing levels should be as high as possible in sales and as low as possible in all other areas. In sales, that means we should have as many sales staff members as our products and market can support. Generally speaking, more sales staff means more sales.
As low as possible in the newsroom, eh? Yes…
We operate with a lean core of newsroom staff and contributors and wire services for efficiency.
And what should that “lean core” of journalists be doing?
If our content is truly reflecting our community, the advertisers’ interests and our content will closely align.
Translation: editorial content should be aimed at pleasing advertisers. Don’t rock the business boat. Favour entertainment material over information. Just give us the numbers. Journalism is of secondary importance in the exercise of making money.
Sure, I know this isn’t a scoop. It has been the case since the founding of a commercial press at the end of the 19th century.
But plenty of people don’t know it. Publishers who are taking an axe to editorial staff on a weekly basis are fooling audiences. They pay lip service to serving the public but their real intent is to squeeze the greatest possible profit from their portfolio.
This runs counter to the journalistic mission to inform, educate and entertain. By turning their backs on journalism they are making it more and more difficult for us to hold power to account.
Meanwhile, seen from the other perspective, advertisers are increasingly intent on overlooking the value of newsprint.
I found myself nodding at an observation by John Witherow, editor of the Times, in a Campaign interview. He said of falling print ad revenues: “A lot of them don’t seem to read newspapers in the ad agencies”.
They never have, of course. Journalism was always the annoying bit of newspaper content wrapped around their adverts.
Note that Witherow was speaking against the background of the Times’s print sales having risen while its ad revenues have fallen for six years in a row.
It may well be an exaggeration to suggest that, between them, newspaper publishers and advertisers are conspiring to undermine journalism. But I’ve said it all the same.