What isn’t working: Brexit press

I’m a bit pissed right now. In both senses of the word. Everything that I type from now on has to be read in that context. Are you ok with that (judging me-wise)? Then I’ll begin.

There are a few things you need to know as background. Back story if you like.

We live in a small village in East Staffordshire. We have friends here. We are part of village life. I do posters and programmes (in InDesign, not that anyone  knows that) and write press releases and feature articles and sort photo shoots and PR and we staff bars and give advice and time and free software and AV kit and expertise and consult and… you get the idea. If you live in a small village, you know how the Linda Snell mission creep happens when you have skillz.

On Thursday, over 63% of our village voted to leave. We went into our, much-frequented, local pub after voting and joked that: “that one vote to stay in tomorrow – it was us”…Tumbleweed, much.

Tonight though, Sunday, we were laughed out of that same pub by people we’d been friends with last week, because we said we voted Remain. Actually not laughed – jeered at and heckled.

You know when you’re at school and you’re the cleverest one in the class and you try to pretend you’re not, just to make friends? I’ve been doing that since I was at primary school.

And then Brexit. And suddenly it’s not just about having voted differently, but about realising that you’re still the clever kid in the class that no-one wants to hear from. Brexit isn’t a poor/rich split (because trust me, the first 30 years of my life were bones-of-my-arse poor in ways most Brexiters  couldn’t begin to comprehend), it’s about informed vs uninformed.

We were meant to open our garden this weekend for the village’s Open Gardens event, which we’ve organised for the last five years. But at 4.50am on Friday morning, I was standing in our kitchen crying buckets, and hubby was saying: “I don’t want them in my garden”. It was us and them, not us v them. It was a realisation that we were foreign bodies here.

We talked about it. We knew that if we decided to close our garden at the last minute we were starting something we could never come back from. I said: “Are we OK going back to that time we’d just moved here and didn’t have any friends?” In the meantime our children were WhatsApping their fury and anguish, and social media created a pathway for our shared despair.

We closed our garden, we were nice about it, even helpful, and we took the dogs to the beach for the day. And the next day.

Talacre

Nice pic to give us all a break before I move on. The sand dune is Talalcre by the way.

 

I’ll get back to the journalism, because that’s what this particular blog is about (I have others, did you expect me to be a one blog woman?). On Saturday I was blaming my profession. Fuck you Sun! Fuck you Mail journalists! Fuck you dumbed-down ITV! Our job is to report and inform, not to invent and direct. Just because we know people respond to pictures of people doesn’t mean we have to make every story about a person. A hero guy, an evil woman.

I teach this stuff. I ran newsrooms. News is about putting the person into the story. But at what point did we as journalists decide it was OK to be part of a racist majority press illustrating stories with non-existent people?

To tell voters Farage is the man to lead the country; that immigrants eat the Queen’s swans; that migrants will swamp us; that the Queen is pro-Brexit; that people who have spent their lives studying a particular issue are just making up facts to suit politicians? That those clever people in the class are really out to get you?

dailymailhateus

Today, Sunday, the Tory and Labour parties are in full blood-bath, completely pointless argue-among-ourselves mode, and in the meantime a lot of people who voted leave and are now a bit worried about it are looking for someone to blame. So, ITV ran a story about 11 members of the shadow cabinet walking out on Corbyn and our local pub cheered – they’d found their scapegoat.

Too many journalists seem to think it’s OK if the fallout from their work is that groups of people are encouraged to hate each other. To believe it isn’t their fault if an immigrant is beaten up; if a student feels unwelcome; if a migrant toddler drowns. Because you’ve forgotten (or don’t know) how to tell a good story with facts, you stick to a comfort zone of personalities: this person we’ve heard of dissing that person we might have heard of.

And in a pub, people who are scared latch onto a scapegoat like a liferaft, and shout down a neighbour. You did this – own it.

Every single reporter working for the national media right now, I want to ask you – are you happy with everything you’ve written this month? Do you truly think you did a great job? And did Thursday’s vote go the way you, personally, wanted it to go?

Because if it didn’t, don’t ever let me hear you say you were ‘just doing your job’. I’ve been there as a journalist – it’s wrong and it won’t ever feel right, it will haunt you.

Journalism is a calling. It isn’t a job, it isn’t a trade, it isn’t just a craft. It’s a responsibility that goes way beyond paying the mortgage. So step up to the fucking plate and grow a pair!!

Sorry, I don’t usually swear. I need another drink.

 

I can tell you other stories from this weekend. My mum who voted out because, as a life-long Labour voter she didn’t trust Cameron. When I told her that meant she’d voted for Boris she said “but he’s even worse!”. A neighbour who voted out because: “If they’d said all this stuff that’s been on the telly a couple of weeks ago, I’d have know what I was voting for”. Another who said: “I didn’t vote because I didn’t know what the issues were”.

That is Cameron’s fault and Gove’s fault and Corbyn’s fault but it is also our fault. We are supposed to be the explainers, the informers. We’re the Fourth Estate: our purpose is to stand in the middle, not at opposing ends.

Being a journalist is a responsible job, it makes a difference. If you ever needed a lesson in why and how, look at Friday morning, look at what’s happened this weekend. Look at the discussions that are growing, not slowing, on Facebook. The country isn’t just split, it’s screaming in pain.

Please – stop pretending to yourself that this is just a job. If Britain ever needed anything right now, it needs journalists who believe in journalism. Step forward or piss off backwards.

It's_The_Sun_Wot_Won_It

What didn’t work: newspapers

What I’m listening to while I type: Sea Sew

I’m not saying that newspapers are dead: individual newspapers will continue as businesses as long as the ratio between cost and revenue makes sense for the owner. But as a business model, we really are looking at the endgame.

Last week, Newsweek announced it was to end its print edition and go online-only in a bid to cut “legacy costs” attached to producing the printed product. Reports suggested $40m annual losses (one day I’ll do a chart showing how $40m/£40m is the default for stories mentioning newspaper losses), although other writers suggested it was that Newsweek just wasn’t good enough.

The same week, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was spitting bricks over a Telegraph story suggesting he was fighting to save The Guardian’s print edition against pressure to switch to online-only. It’s a story that surfaces periodically, not least because media commentators don’t believe The Guardian can turn around its £40m (yup) annual losses before the business runs out of money entirely.

The issue is that the cost of producing a newspaper has outstripped earnings from newspaper sales since the 1880s. Since when, the business model has become almost entirely dependent on the delivery of an audience to advertisers – and the valuing of that audience according to both demographic and size.

But the problem the business model now faces is that the assumption that equated size of audience to share of advertising revenue has been overturned by the shift to digital. Online audiences don’t deliver sufficient revenue because the advertising industry pays less for digital ads compared to print. The usual quote is that $100 advert offline = $10 on the web = $1 in mobile.

While 43 percent of Guardian News and Media’s readership is online, the company makes only one fifth of its income from digital. The Daily Mail is the most popular newspaper website in the whole wide world yet raises just 2.6 percent from online advertising. In May this year, the Daily Mail was selling 1.9m newspapers a day, but had 5.6m web visits a day. Despite web audience trouncing print, the Group’s news websites earned just £12m against £171m for newspaper advertising.

As Rusbridger tweeted in response to the Telegraph story: “Numbers for going digital only & junking print just don’t add up”.

It’s not just about newspapers having a business model dependent on (falling) advertising, but having a business model that separates product from sales. News is not the product that newspapers sell. News is an attractor: the attention attracted by news is what’s being sold.

 

nestle

In the next village to me is a big Nestle factory. When I walk the dogs, I smell the coffee. Nestle makes Nescafe, KitKats, pizza, icecream, petfood, babyfood…The branding is in the products, the quality is in the products. You know what to expect from a Yorkie; you know whether you like Dolce Gusto coffee.

The business model is that you buy the Nestle products you like, and 130 years ago that was the business model for newspapers. You don’t pay a monthly subscription to drink Nescafe. Shopkeepers don’t give you free KitKats in the hope that you’ll read the advert for insurance on the wrapper.

(I’m making the assumption here that it costs less to make a KitKat than Nestle sell it for. Unlike newspapers).

For newspapers to survive people have to want to read a newspaper. Whether you’re selling adverts or newspapers, you still need readers. But just how many newspapers you have to sell also relates to the size of the business you’re trying to support. The problem isn’t just with the newspaper sales model, but with the scale of the companies that run newspapers.

Newspapers are increasingly a by-product of the global corporations that run media businesses alongside successful insurance risk services (DMGT); contract printing (Trinity Mirror); TV stations, websites, magazines and nursing services (Gannett); TV, Hulu, publishing, Australian rugby league (News Corporation).

If all you need is to make enough money to pay a handful of staff and the print and distribution contracts, you don’t have to sell a lot of newspapers. It’s a model that still works at small-scale or local. But share dividends, company cars, pension schemes, city offices, ad campaigns, a $33m salary for the boss, well it adds up.

Am I saying newspapers can’t be big business? Yes, I am. But I’m not saying that newspapers can’t make money.

I am also saying that you can’t have a business branded by a newspaper but make your money selling insurance and running care homes. Eventually, the insurance-sellers are in charge and the loss-makers are cut or axed.

More importantly perhaps is that you can’t be a big, global, multi-purpose company and still expect to dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee when you’ve got a fight on your hands. As newspapers have now. As tech-VC Fred Destin puts it:

Most corporations are defined by the quality of their planning processes, which in turn become objectives against which execution happens and achievements are measured. Corporate behemoths, faced with change, stumble and fall. In fluid markets where everything can be priced and exchanged dynamically, startups thrive. They are the elemental unit of a cloud economy, highly adaptable and insanely good at one thing. But large corporations cannot adapt at the speed necessary to remain best of breed in all aspects of their business.

Here’s what I think we do with newspapers: we forget what we know about selling newspapers and look at what we’ve learned from the web.

The web is incomprehensibly massive and global yet personal. It’s like driving a car – we shut the door and think we’re the only ones on the road. It doesn’t matter how big the web is (or how few companies are running it); we travel around it according to our personal roadmap of interests.

A couple of weeks ago I challenged my entrepreneurial journalism students to come up with something they didn’t like about the news – a problem that needed changing. Each problem they raised came back to one thing – the news wasn’t personal.

It wasn’t that they only wanted to read the news that interested them, it was that they couldn’t easily access news they might be interested in.

The profession of journalism has been based on how to deliver news that most people would want to know. But most on the web is most products, most choices, most information, most of our friends, most people like us, or most like the thing we’re searching for – ie most of the things one person wants, in one place.

Apply that to news and you get most of the news that interests me, and some of my friends, and some people with the same interests as me – without me having to look for it. Does that sound like a newspaper to you? And then there’s that other bit – the things I don’t know that I might want to know.

So, given another run at investor funding , here’s what I’d do instead of launch a newspaper: I’d build what Facebook could have become on April 6th, 2005.