Johnston Press soon to be renamed Johnston Er…

It’s hard sometimes to write a post and not be completely ranty, but I’ll give it my best shot this week even though I think I have good cause to vent.

In 2010 Michael Johnston, Johnston Press Scotland divisional MD, was being scrutinised by a committee of Members of the Scottish Parliament about the state of the newspaper industry North of the border.

I quote from Mr Johnston’s submission to the MSPs, “We possibly did not invest enough in journalism. Looking at the here and now, and moving forward, I want to ensure that the businesses that I am responsible for are sustainable and can continue to function in a viable way.

“Journalism is fundamental to what we do. I recognise journalism as being not only a significant cost but a significant attribute of our business.”

So what are Johnston Press playing at now? It emerged yesterday (Monday, 27th Jan 2014, via HoldTheFrontPage) that JP are to axe all the staff photographers from their Midlands division in favour of reader-generated content. It’s quite hard to see how this tallies with an ethos of investing in journalism. I guarantee that whatever state those Midlands titles are in now, their readerships, sales and advertising revenues will all see an accelerated slide once the papers are populated with submitted images.

The problem Johnston Press have is that after a long programme of acquisition and asset-stripping in the 1990s and early 2000s, they racked up large debts at the same time as fatally damaging the newspapers they bought.

Under-investment in journalism and photography has meant their readership and advertisers have run away to the internet. Had JP and other publishing groups like them already been AT the internet, ready and waiting with quality online content from the get go, they might not be in the terrible position they’re in now. But time and again, JP management have proved themselves to be woefully incompetent. So here we are, yet again hearing about the wholesale redundancies of photographers.

To many people this is just seen as inevitable change. A consequence of the internet, the digital revolution. This is lazy thinking and doesn’t take into account the loss of democracy that comes with quality reporting supported and enhanced by quality imagery. The Midlands group of newspapers affected by these redundancies will be expected to rely on images sent in by readers. In other words, the daily and weekly agendas of newspapers are to be set by whatever free pictures are sent in, not by reporters and photographers digging up stories which really matter to the communities in which they live and work. This harms democracy.

And no, this state of affairs would not have been inevitable had publishers taken a different course early on, but as Mr Johnston admitted, journalism is expensive and twenty years ago, when they were making more money than they knew what to do with, they could have invested rather than push for ever greater profit margins. This  might not have pleased shareholders looking for quick returns, but this lack of foresight means that companies like JP are among the “zombie” companies we’ve been hearing about of late. Their debts and years of under-investment leave them prey to the banks who control the finances and make them desperately un-attractive prospects for potential buyers who might have had the means to save them if things hadn’t gone to terminally dire.

Guardian columnist Prof. Roy Greenslade commented that these redundancies are inevitable and just a result of newspaper economics. Well, bless the dotty professor for forgetting to mention that current newspaper economics are a direct result of massive mis-management around 20 years ago. All this might be inevitable now, but it’s as a result of reckless greed, not out of a need to have rubbish newspapers filled with rubbish content. I don’t think anyone truly needs that.

There, I just failed to not rant.

 

Update: Professor Greenslade follows-up after photographers argue back. He says he’s right, then goes on to prove he barely has a grasp of newspaper economics. It’s quite worrying really.

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7 comments

  • markthemediaman January 28, 2014   Reply →

    To be fair, I spent 15 years as a senior advertising designer for JP and all they did was outsourced design to a cheaper outlet. This is all JP are doing with their images. Then relying on a ‘picture editor’ to get the best one for the job. Next…Blog built newpapers. Or is it already?

    • Glass Eye January 29, 2014   Reply →

      Hi Mark and thanks for your comment. While it must be frustrating to see skilled work outsourced to a cheaper outlet, the photography on many titles is being replaced with reader-submitted content which doesn’t give the picture editor the pick of the best for the job. What it does is sweep away editorial in favour of “whatever comes in for free that day (or week)”. Hundreds of submitted photos are of no use if none of them illustrate the stories the journalists are working on. They might get lots of pictures of a house fire, but only if a house catches fire. What about the rest of the time when there’s nothing to catch the iSnapper’s attention?

      There are more issues than I can deal with in a single, coherent blog article such as who covers the day-to-day events and how members of the public might be expected to cover serious incidents armed with an iPhone and little knowledge of the law and police procedure.

      The short answer is, as I’ve seen in my own local papers, real news stories simply get dropped in favour of endless charity cheque presentations, cut-n-paste press releases and the occasional pretty view sent in by a reader. The photography isn’t outsourced in any real sense, news just stops being properly covered.

      Newspapers need to be informative, entertaining and good enough quality to justify their cover price and ad rates. Strip out quality content by talented photographers and journalists and they achieve none of these things, which is why sales will tumble ever faster. It’s a pattern which is being repeated across titles all over the country, but the publishers have left it too late to learn the lessons of past mistakes. I suspect it would cost too much to reverse the damage.

      Blog-built newspapers might very well be where publishers want to go, but they’ll struggle to attract enough content of a high enough quality to pull in the readerships, and thereby the advertisers, to beat what’s already out there.

      I apologise for a rather long-winded reply, but I hope you can see the wider “picture” now.

      Thanks

      Tim

  • markdieselforster February 1, 2014   Reply →

    Pretty much hitting the nail on the head. Also, the initial approach to the internet was haphazard and pretty rubbish, really. It was seen as a competitor, an excuse for falling sales.
    Quality will out. Good quality editorial, photographs and design will get readers. The opposite will continue the decline.
    Too many talented writers, subs/designers and togs sacrificed for profit.

    • Glass Eye February 1, 2014   Reply →

      Thank you for your thoughts, Mark. Agreed. Publishers used to moan it was television that was causing a decline in sales, then it was the internet. Perhaps instead of blaming everything else for their decline they should have looked at what they could do to make sure content kept improving. Competing with rivals can be done by cost-cutting, or by beating them on quality. Given that 50/50 choice, most publishers manage to get it wrong.

  • Gede Prama February 9, 2014   Reply →

    Well written. May peace be with you 🙂

  • Maryellen August 11, 2014   Reply →

    I could watch Scn’hdleris List and still be happy after reading this.

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