The cornflake conundrum for newspapers – or why pitting print v digital is doing no-one any favours

Variety Packs … Like Newspapers?

An interesting article based on quotes from a former regional newspaper editor appeared on Hold the Front Page last week. Former Leicester Mercury editor Keith Perch, now a freelance consultant and part-time journalism lecturer had come to the conclusion that readers will ultimately have to pay for journalism.

The article was based on a post Keith had put on his blog. I’m grateful HTFP wrote about it – I’ve now discovered his blog and, while not always agreeing with what he says, I think there’s a lot many journalism experts could learn about how to blog in an inclusive, multimedia way.

The post which prompted the HTFP article also stated that for news organisations to get people to pay for news, they’d have to offer up something which people valued. And there’s the big challenge.

Sadly, when articles like this are written, all too often the debate becomes about how the internet has killed the regional press, and how the regional press has inflicted most of the damage itself by giving the online content away for free.

Keith suggests that Johnston Press is losing £21 in print revenue for every £1 it is making in digital. I see that as a dangerous way of framing a discussion – it invites the ‘turn off the website’ devotees to argue the two are interlinked. Few other industries compare one revenue stream against another in the same way, instead focusing on the need to make the most out of the growing revenue stream while trying to protect the other for as long as possible.

The secret is to ensure that while protecting the one, you don’t restrict the other. Recently, a friend at another newspaper publisher told me they were considering keeping copy off the main website to ‘make people buy the e-edition.’ That’s one way to stick up a paywall – and a good way to ignore the mistakes of 2006.
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Books by journalists: Gathering String – Mimi Johnson

In March last year, I was lucky enough to meet Steve Buttry – the Digital Transformation Editor at Digital First Media, an American news organisation which has taken a radical approach to digital publishing in the States. For anyone interested in serious discussion about the future of a media which has its roots in print, his blog is essential reading.

So why mention it when clearly writing about a book which doesn’t have his name on the front? Well, I found out about the book via his blog, written by his wife, Mimi Johnson. Yet it was only when he tweeted highlights from a couple of reviews on Amazon that I finally downloaded it to the Kindle app on the ipad. Mimi, I should add, is also a journalist.

The dark bags under my eyes which several colleagues remarked on last week have nothing to do with a no-excess-spared Christmas, or chasing after an 18-month-old who has discovered that most wrapped boxes contain a present for her for a fortnight. Or, indeed, long miles travelling to relatives while my wife battled through a stomach bug.

No, those bags are entirely due to the book on the right here. You know when you think you don’t have time to read, then start reading a book when you get chance and then everything else that can be put to one side tends to go that way? This is one of those books.

Set in America, the plot revolves around three journalists: Battle-hardened cynic Sam Waterman who has quit working on a top Washington newspaper to pursue a career, reluctantly, at a politics website; a photographer he once had an affair with which he’s never got over called Tess Benedict who escaped Washington and found a new life in a sleepy Iowa town with a basketball star turned newspaper publisher Jack Westphal. Westphal is, in short, everything Waterman isn’t.

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