Ay up, the doom mongers are back!

Nothing like a bit of doom mongering on a Sunday morning to pass the time, is there?

About 18 months ago, as the credit crunch became a recession and the jobs began tumbling out of regional journalism, you couldn’t move on places like Twitter for people predicting the very imminent end of newspapers.

During 2008, it felt as though there was a race to make the biggest prediction about how the recession would impact newspapers – how many hundreds would shut. Those predictions have become lazy facts still quoted now, despite the fact the figure stands at around 60 and, as the Newspaper Society is at pains to point out, most of those were second, third or fourth place in their respective markets.

The doom mongers have been quiet of late, but appear to be clearing their throats for a fresh assault. A widely tweeted link this weekend was to this piece in Peter Preston’s column in The Observer. It’s only two paragraphs, so I’ll repeat it here:

Most of the press wanted cuts and pain. So bang – for starters – goes a £75m Department of Health ad campaign against obesity. And bang goes a swathe of public service job ads which Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, says must go (far more cheaply) online.

HMG is Britain’s biggest advertiser. Local papers, battling to survive, get 75% of their revenue from ads. So the pain without prospect of gain is great, and mounting. The French (and, to some extent, the Americans) steer ads towards print. They help ensure survival. But that’s namby-pamby stuff in a coalition world, not to mention what looks like the first double-dip industry in the land of hard times.

Cut through the fluffy words and there is a simple message: You lot asked for cuts, well now you’re going to be cut. Among the people linking to this piece today were council press officers, ex newspaper employees, online evangelists – and a former Labour minister.

Tom Watson, the MP who brilliantly called education secretary Michael Gove a pipsqueak in the Commons, responded to the link with a simple ‘you reap what you sow.’ There’s probably a totally different post in how so few words from an MP can tell you so much about the mindset of a party – clearly Labour believe the media cost them the election, rather than their often cack-handed running of the country over the last five years.

After all, it’s an achievement in itself to lose an election as the party promising not to slash and burn.  But that’s for another day. But a similar sentiment is starting to echo from Town Halls too.

Despite being praised during the election for being such tight ships, it’s no surprise the coalition government is coming down hard on them – it’s much easier for a minister to distance himself from a local leisure centre closing (‘it’s a local decision’) than it is to hide from cuts in the NHS. So those under fire in town halls lash out at those they find it easiest to blame – the media.

After all, the media controls the way people vote, right? Wrong – as anyone who works at the Guardian will tell you after it’s ill-fated decision to tell people to vote Lib Dem.

There’s no doubt that the media, probably like every other industry which deals with government – local or central – will feel the fall-out of the savings being made. But if we’re going to have the doom choir on song again, can we at least check the facts first?

To begin with: While the national newspapers will have argued for the Tories, and therefore for cuts, local newspapers didn’t. So ‘most of the press’ is wrong.

Second, lets deal with this myth about public sector jobs advertising. Yes, it’s an important revenue stream for local newspapers, but many papers have long had a battle to keep public sector advertising in print. A press officer I used to work with when working in Lancashire once boasted they ‘only used the local paper for jobs they couldn’t put on specialist jobs websites.’ So the notion that papers are competing with the web for jobs isn’t news – newspapers will have to keep ensuring their proposition is attractive for councils going forward. Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, hasn’t banned the use of the press for job adverts. I suspect the bigger impact will be the lack of jobs being created at all.

Nothing has stopped those organisations which spend small fortunes advertising in The Guardian’s Society supplement from moving online ages ago. Some have – but many continue to advertise in print because it suits them and clearly delivers results.

And so to the obesity campaign Preston talks about. The Department of Health is at pains to say it hasn’t been axed, but that they want the private sector to pay for it. Even if it does die a death, that’s not £75million lost just to the Press. It’s a potential hit, but you only have to look at the Change4Life campaign to know it goes way beyond the printed press. Sponsorship of The Simpsons, radio ads, social media campaigns, posters, deals with gyms, funding for PCT projects. Again, the government hasn’t said ‘we’re never going to spend money in the media,’ they’re saying they want to make sure they’re spending less money, more wisely.

I was at a conference earlier this year where a government department told a room full of ‘communication officers’ that a recent campaign had been really successful because they’d targetted it just through a medium which was proven to be used by their target audience. They wanted to make sure tradesmen heard their message – so went to TalkSport. Rocket science, eh? If fairness to the speaker, she didn’t think it was – but many members of the audience clearly did.

So yes, there are cuts coming. But the challenge is to prove the value of sticking with print – and the combined online offering. I guess there will be doom mongers reading this, shaking their heads and saying that I’m prejudiced because of the fact I work for Trinity Mirror, a newspaper publisher. Maybe I am, but I reckon no more so than the doom mongers with a score to settle.


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