Saturday 30 January 2010, by
This bargain-priced one day conference in London was fully booked and attended by about 60 participants, including me.
The three workshops into which we self-selected at the end reflected the main topics covered: Local Media, Making the Web Pay, and Alternative Sources of Funding.
We kicked off with two contrasting overviews of the current state of journalism. Granville Williams, media commentator, pointed out that the rise of the Internet and the financial crisis have only accelerated the existing decline in newspaper readership. He thought that the media had in fact done quite well out of this ‘by tearing out jobs to maximise profits’ and was sceptical about web advertising making anyone much money, least of all individual journalists. He felt the government should intervene to rescue serious investigative journalism, as it has done for the bankers.
Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette, which has successfully survived two closures and changes of ownership since 2006, had a more upbeat message. Local and regional newspapers are still in profit, albeit with smaller staff, and free newspapers are still being launched. ‘In the right market, print still works.’ The Press Gazette print version has gone from weekly to monthly, uses a smaller staff including more freelancers, and has a big online readership. The website uses blogging and lots of links to point readers to important websites/developments (‘churnalism’) and has some added-value serious journalism. The website keeps the brand name strong although doesn’t cover its costs. He concluded that a strong brand which embraces the web can survive as a paying proposition, but that in a world in which more media are covering the same patch in a more fragmented way with fewer staff, web advertising would only pay one full-time journalist a living wage.
This led seamlessly to the next topic, Making the Web Pay. David Parkin, ex-Yorkshire Post business editor, launched www.thebusinessdesk.com in 2007, a business news website aimed at Yorkshire businessmen. It has now become two profitable websites and is expanding into all the other topics covered by traditional newspapers. The site attracts advertisers by focusing on quality writing and constantly-updated exclusive information (slogan: ‘Tomorrow’s News Today’) delivered to a specific market via their Blackberries and other mobile devices. It is free to users but they must register to read it and receive the updates. He employs five full-time journalists and thinks the key to a successful online publication is understanding the readers and giving them what they want.
Daniel Johnston, founder of http://indusdelta.co.uk/, a profitable news, analysis and community website, agreed that the secret of success is to build up readership via quality targeted information and add-on services and that then the advertisers will come – eventually. He employs one other staff member.
The issue of Making Blogs Pay was addressed by two youngish men, Conrad Quilty-Harper, a former contributor to www.engadget.com and blogger at http://spalpeen.co.uk, followed by Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) of the eponymous and lucrative political blog http://order-order.com. They were the only ones to use Power Point and exuded the entrepreneurial spirit, stating unequivocally that their aim was to make loadsamoney. They agreed that most bloggers are paid peanuts and that the way to attract lucrative advertising (Paul Staines recommends MessageSpace, of which he was a founder, rather than Google) is to target a niche audience and expand it as much as possible. Paul added that having a high Internet profile can generate spin-off income in consultancy fees, and from being ‘a media tart’. At least he was honest.
On Making Local Media Pay, Eric Gordon, founder of Camden New Journal, an established employee-owned independent London local paper, and Angie Sammons, editor of www.liverpoolconfidential.com , a successful online magazine, spoke passionately about their belief in getting back to the roots of local journalism by winning a community’s trust and support.
Your reporter’s attention was slipping here, having had to get up unusually early and soothed by the effects of the half-hour lunch break. So I didn’t take in much of Ian Reeves’ presentation on Alternative Funding for Journalism, beyond noting that the Gotham Gazette in New York got money from its readers to fund a specific campaign (‘crowd-funding’) and that a journalist-blogger successfully asked his readers to contribute to keeping him on the staff of the New Tork Times. But another who did this found the pressure of having to write for 40,000 ‘owners’ too much like having 40,000 bosses.
This sounded to me like a return to the bad old 18th-century system of patronage for writers, a suspicion unintentionally confirmed by the next speaker, the American ex-World in Action producer Gavin Mac Fadyen, now director of the non-profit foundation funded Centre for Investigative Journalism, based at City University in London. I woke up with a start for his dynamic presentation (no Power Point) arguing for the extension of foundation funding à la George Soros in the USA to the UK, to save the future of investigative journalism.
We then broke up into three workshops to discuss what we’d heard. I joined ‘Making the Web Pay’. Here are the necessarily sketchy results, given that we had just over 30 minutes to discuss and 5 minutes to report back:
Local media We should stop working for free. Employee ownership is the answer.
Making the Web Pay Needs a special interest/niche market. Problem of keeping web info exclusive. No one had experience of actually making a living from Google Adwords. The NUJ could run an add-on course to the existing ‘Build Your Own Website’ on the commercial and SEO aspects of web design, and could invite other professionals to network with us. The NUJ could also run a ‘Rate for Online Ads’ similar to the Rate for the Job.
Funding The NUJ could run a one-day workshop, bringing together people with direct experience of setting up journalists’ co-operatives.
Pete Murray, NUJ President, concluded by saying that the NUJ is in favour of public funding to help support quality journalism and of stronger regulation to limit the concentration of media in fewer and fewer hands. Foundation-style funding is being proposed by the Tories and the NUJ should be involved in this debate. The union also supports the French idea of a ‘Google tax’ to prevent a free-for-all Internet culture and the Scottish proposal to give 18-year-olds free subscriptions to newspapers. It will continue to support quality journalism and better working conditions for online journalists as well as those working in print and broadcasting.
I left in thoughtful mood, better-informed about the changes taking place and pleased to note the multiplicity of viewpoints represented, from speakers who had agreed to come for no fee.