Wednesday, 13 August 2014

(Dis)owning the news...


There was a time when I bought two newspapers every day. In the morning I'd buy the Daily Telegraph in the shop over the road, walk to Kent House station and complete the crossword on the journey to London Bridge (the aim was to get it done before reaching Herne Hill but this seldom happened). On the way home I'd buy the London Evening News and do its three crosswords - the worst of these was the so-called children's crossword.

I write this because, back then, other than the evening news on the TV, that was the sum total of our news consumption. Almost everyone bought one or other of the national papers and in doing so maintained a huge industry of paper boys, paper stalls, newsagents, journalists, advertising executives and sales people. Not to ignore the legendary - or should I say notorious - printers with their closed shops and 'spanish practices'. Living in South London I knew a few printers - my friend in the YCs, Ian was from a whole family of Fleet Street printers (Tory voters every one). They all had private print shops and, when they needed some extra cash, would do a shift or two on the Sundays - whether this actually entailed any work was something I never fully discovered.

Newspapers were big business and they were important. Ownership mattered and those papers could and did set the national agenda, influence the outcome of political debates and make a difference to the way people voted. And the legacy of all this remains - the media is still slightly obsessed with the ups and downs of the newspapers especially that part of the media not owned by Rupert Murdoch or Lord Rothermere.

The most recent manifestation of this obsession is the idea that we can crowdsource the funds to buy one or two of the national titles off Rupert Murdoch:

Hardly surprising, then, to see the groundswell of support for a new campaign, “Let’s Own the News” which launched this week and is inviting pledges from people who like the idea of buying The Times and The Sunday Times from Rupert Murdoch.  Backed by The Young Foundation, Let’s Own the News say that “80% of the national newspapers we read are controlled by 5 families, this is not a free press and it undermines our democracy. Our vote is worth little if a few people control the information we read. ”

So far the campaign has raised a little over £250,000 which probably isn't enough to buy the two titles right now. However,  setting aside the vanity of this project, the truth about news - or rather newspapers - is that ownership is of little relevance. We the people have, in the main, disowned newspapers.

Back in the 1970s sales for daily newspapers were around 16m and for Sunday newspapers around 20m - this is more-or-less one per household (there were about 19m households in the UK in 1975). By way on contrast, in 2000, there were 25m households and sales for daily and Sunday papers stand at around 10m apiece. This suggests that at least half - and probably more - of households did not buy a newspaper at all. This trend continues.

A hard business look at the Times and Sunday Times might suggest that these titles simply aren't viable (or likely to be viable). It makes sense for a large conglomerate to own them - they provide gravitas, have a brand that can be used elsewhere and provide an influential platform for opinion. On their own - without the protection of News Corp or a deep pocketed private trust such as the Guardian's owner - the prospects for creating a sustainable and profitable newspaper business is, to put it mildly, pretty slim.

But that's the business of the folk trying to buy the newspaper. What bugs me slightly is their argument that the change is needed to reduce the concentrated control of the news and hence the news agenda. The argument that the newspapers are owned by only 5 families completely misses the point. The real problem isn't with newspapers but with the organisation that controls nearly 40% of media output in the UK and which has a wholly disproportionate influence over the news agenda.

Changing the ownership of the Times wouldn't make a jot of difference - fewer than a million folk buy the papers and, since they disappeared behind a paywall, they don't get the millions of online visits that the Telegraph, Mail and Guardian enjoy. But reforming the BBC would make a difference. Our news consumption is via the TV, computer and mobile phone and it is here that the change must come. Put simply the case for having a state broadcaster that dominates UK online news and is funded via a poll tax is now almost impossible to justify. Rather than trying (and probably failing) to raise £100m to buy the times, the Young Foundation would serve the cause of a more open news economy much better by campaigning to scrap the licence fee.

As consumers we have disowned newspapers, they are increasingly marginal and it is hard to see a future for them in their traditional role or format. The future of news creation and distribution is online and mobile and right now the BBC is making it hard for choice and independence to succeed in this new news market. If we want to reduce the concentration of media power then the place to start is with the BBC not the Times.


1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

They could always start their own newspaper, of course...