Newspapers vs. ‘Newspapers’

Guest Post by Carl Foster, Peppercom UK

Uk mags "Good morning, Trinity Mirror news desk"

"Hi, I'm calling from Trinity Mirror PR to follow up on the press release I sent you about our new widget"

"Oh, right. When did you send it?"

"Just a little while ago"

"And you're calling from where?"

"Trinity Mirror PR. We sit on the other side of the office from you. Look, I'm standing up and waving – yoo hoo!"

"Oh yes, hi. Can you send it to me again? Or better yet, just tell me where it's saved on the server and I'll copy and paste it from there."

That worrying scenario could play out at a newspaper near you if the suggestion of Neil Benson, editorial director at Trinity Mirror in the UK, comes true. The idea that struggling newspapers should set up PR agencies as an additional source of revenue has set tongues wagging in PR circles, but the notion should be of concern far beyond our little fiefdom.

Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures. We're certainly at the stage where no idea is a bad idea when it comes to saving the newspaper industry from further closures. However, if newspapers were to set up PR agencies, even if they were to operate at arm's length, their very credibility and trustworthiness would be called into question. If the model did prove financially successful it would not save the newspaper; it would simply mean it was replaced with a 'newspaper'.

The newspaper vs. 'newspaper' concept is not new. An Evening Standard column from earlier this year highlights the rise of councils in London producing their own pseudo-newspapers. According to the Standard, more writers in London are now employed by these official papers than by the local independent press. Who is paying for this? The Standard says one of these pseudo-newspapers, the Greenwich Time, has a total gross cost of £708,000 a year, with at least £532,000 of that borne by the public purse.

Apparently Andy Burnham, the then media secretary Andy Burnham said that council newspapers were "overstepping" the mark. But this is too vague. In the U.K. we need an U.S. FCC style proposal that requires transparency for "endorsements and testimonials" by people with "material connections" to sellers of a product or service.

Would a PR agency linked to a newspaper group have a "material connection"? One for the lawyers I think.

So if the credibility of some newspapers is in decline because of the source of their revenue, and the very existence of other newspapers is threatened by a collapse in revenue, where does that leave the citizens in our democracy that need varied but credible sources of news? Well, the ad-supported, free online (and sometimes offline) model doesn't seem to be working – even if the Evening Standard has put all its eggs in that one basket. At the other end of the spectrum we have Rupert Murdoch, who will be putting all News Corp. content behind subscription walls soon, and also possibly block Google from searching its pages.

Another suggestion, put forward by Greg Dyke, the former director general of the BBC, is a state-funded (not state-owned) media. This seems to be one of the few ways to guarantee that the media has the resources to provide credible and thorough news coverage. Dyke puts forward the suggestion in a debate on Al-Jazeera’s Empire programme, which is well worth watching. However, the question of how this funding would filter down from the giants of the BBC and France24 to local newspapers is a tricky to answer.   

So, in the spirit of no idea being a bad idea, how do you suggest the newspaper industry save itself from collapse?

4 thoughts on “Newspapers vs. ‘Newspapers’

  1. That is a depressing analysis, Brian, mostly because it is so true.
    To think that a functioning fourth estate, that has the necessary resources to properly hold the government to account, will be dependent on charity is a very worrying state of affairs.
    I think that scenario played out for NPR fairly recently, but not all media outlets will be so lucky, hence why I think Greg Dyke’s idea of state funding is a good one. The problem is, how will it actually work?
    You could draw a parallel with those who support the state funding of political parties. It has lots of benefits in theory, but how it would actually work in practice is unclear. Also, what politician is going to be the one to push for these ideas?

  2. I haven’t heard a good idea yet in response to Steve’s question.
    The people who will continue to have an interest in news gathering and distribution AND the money to do it well have huge conflicts of interest. In an era of media fragmentation, the people you might trust to do this job probably will lack the revenues and other resources required to do it well. The ideas for raising more revenue aren’t likely to be successful, at least in the U.S. (e.g., pay walls).
    I have some small hope that Grange-like cooperatives of small, resource-poor media outlets will survive and do some good work, thanks to a relentless focus on local stories and the sharing of their highest-quality stories with one another. Then there’s the hope that philanthropists will fund the most expensive news gathering in the future. Of course, these are pretty slender reeds on which to lean, as we contemplate the future of U.S. democracy.
    Brian McGee
    College of Charleston