Friday, June 07, 2013

Local World's David Montgomery: Local papers are in a fight for survival

Above is a short clip from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing where Local World chairman David Montgomery spells out the issue facing local newspaper companies: it is a fight for survival.

What was clear from all of those who gave evidence to the committee was that they see more cuts coming.  Montgomery caused a furore over his suggestions that much of the 'human interface' will have disappeared within the next three or four years and that journalists currently work using a model from 'the middle ages, virtually', but the starting point for this comment was his statement that 'we can't keep taking costs out, but employing the same production techniques.'

Below is a clip in which he explains his vision for a future without human interface.  Sadly, when the chair of the committee, the Conservative John Whittingdale, presses him on exactly what he means, Montgomery gives a politician's answer and Whittingdale lets it go:

The general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stanistreet, described Montgomery's plan as 'a nightmare vision of journalism's future.'

Writing on the Guardian's Media Blog, Stanistreet said:
Amid the management-speak, Montgomery's vision is a chilling one. Does he really have so little inkling that it is high-quality journalism and top-quality writing that is the key to successful newspapers and websites? His thinking is sadly not unique; it is a pattern we are already seeing. Journalists are being reduced to pouring words – sorry content – into pre-determined grids, with the danger of turning newspapers into open sewers.
While many might not usually side with the NUJ, I doubt there are many journalists out there who would disagree with Stanistreet's comments.   She also repeats a gag I've heard from a few Local World journalists recently: 'We call him Rommel' Why? 'Because if we called him Monty it would mean he was on our side!'

It's all good knockabout fun, but, at the risk of upsetting the journalists out there, Montgomery is right.  Well, he's right to the extent that the newspaper companies cannot just keep taking costs out and continuing to do what they currently do .. which is to try to do what they've always done AND a whole lot more with fewer staff.

I've illustrated the catastrophic downturn in revenues faced by local newspaper companies over the past five years on this blog a number of times and pointed out that there was little they could do to prevent classified advertising - the hitherto funder of local journalism - from fleeing to the web where it works so much better.

The companies' response - to cut jobs and the quality of their product (fewer, smaller editions on cheaper paper and with less content) - has inevitably hastened many of their readers' decisions to flee likewise.

And, all the signs are that revenues are still falling (see the interim reports of two companies here) and that is going to lead to more cuts (a fact that was re-iterated by Montgomery in the clips above).  Given that, it is obvious that the newspapers cannot continue to operate the way they do today: people might not like the sound of Montgomery's plan, but nobody seems to have an alternative that makes any sense.

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