It is very easy for anyone working in newspapers at the moment to sink into a near-suicidal depression. Last week was about as bad as could be, with several newspapers groups announcing redundancies.
Among them was Independent News and Media, publisher of this newspaper, which is cutting its London work force by 90, about a fifth of the total. This is intended to save about £10m a year. Even the mighty, and still highly profitable, Daily Mail and General Trust revealed that it is shaving costs by nearly £100m, and is seeking to reduce its payroll by 400.
Advertising revenue is contracting even faster than it did during the recession of the early 1990s. For regional titles it is virtually catastrophic, and some are bound to close. According to a report by Enders Analysis, overall newspaper advertising revenues will decline by 21 per cent next year. They don’t really know, of course. It could be much worse.
Newspapers are caught in a double bind of declining circulation and falling advertising. In such a climate they have no option but to cut costs, sometimes drastically. The redundancies announced by this newspaper have naturally been greeted with horror. The truth is that its management did not have a choice. You have to cut to survive.
There are good reasons, though, for not turning one’s head to the wall and pulling up the bed clothes – at least not yet. My colleague Roy Greenslade made a very good point in his column last week in the London Evening Standard. Roy suggests that many editorial staffs are larger than they were a quarter of a century ago. In some cases they are the same. In very few have they declined.
Of course, as Roy points out, newspapers are all much fatter than they were 25 years ago, and so even though staffing levels have increased the average journalist is probably producing more copy. But his insight should give one a degree of confidence in present circumstances. Newspapers will have to become thinner during the recession as a result of shedding staff and cutting costs – in fact they already are doing so. If this downsizing is done in the right way, many readers will barely notice.
The danger is that panic-stricken managements will take the cleaver to the entire editorial operation, and chop away fairly evenly. Departmental heads may be told to find savings of 20 per cent, or whatever it may be. This is surely the worst possible approach, especially for titles which are already hard-pressed. Newspapers should identify what they do best, and continue to devote the requisite resources to it. It is the peripheral columns and features that should be axed.
That is why editors, not bean counters, should be wholly in charge of editorial cutbacks, though many of them hate to do it. They know better than anyone what is precious and must be preserved at all costs, and what can be sacrificed. Even on cost-conscious newspapers considerable resources are sometimes devoted to marginal activities while core journalism is under funded. Editors do not exist to be loved, and it is up to them to redress imbalances.
My message is that thinner newspapers need not be perceptibly worse. Survival really is the name of the game for some titles – just getting through the next couple of years. Beyond that, I truly believe that the future is rosy for the Press. If you don’t trust me, listen to Rupert Murdoch, who last week asserted that “newspapers will reach new heights in the 21st century”. He added: “The form of delivery may change, but the potential audience for our content will multiply many times over… Our real business isn’t printing on dead trees. It’s giving our readers great journalism and great judgment.”
Isn’t the cunning old monster gloriously right? The good times will come again. We’ve just got to get through the bad ones first.
If Moore is not paying his licence fee, should I pay it for him?
Does Charles Moore speak for England? A few weeks ago the former editor of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ wrote in his column in the same paper that if Jonathan Ross were reinstated by the BBC he would refuse to pay his television licence fee when it next falls due. Following a statement last Friday by Sir Michael Lyons, the chairman of the BBC Trust, in which Mr Ross was spared, it is certain that the unfunny and overpaid vulgarian will be back on our television screens in a couple of months.
Mr Moore is an honourable man, and if he says he will do something, he will do it. I had at first thought that he intended to get rid of his television, and listen only to BBC radio, but it is clear from his column that he plans to hang on to his TV, and watch it when – or if – the spirit moves him. That means this most law abiding and upright of men would be breaking the law, although according to ‘The Sunday Times’ the BBC is unlikely to prosecute, presumably for fear of making a martyr of him.
This would be wrong. If elderly ladies in Hartlepool are to be hounded for not paying their licence fee because they can’t afford to, Mr Moore must also be punished, as he would expect to be, for refusing to pay £139.50, whatever his reasoning. I suppose that if he continues his campaign he may eventually be carted off to prison, leaving his delightful wife practically destitute.
Much as I admire his stand, I can’t help wondering whether he has chosen the right threat. It might have been more prudent to say that he would sleep in Parliament Square for a week in his underpants if Mr Ross were reinstated, as it has long been certain that he would be. His particular threat not only puts him on the wrong side of the law; it also deters many of his natural supporters from following him. The denizens of Middle England do not like breaking the law, however noble the cause.
Mr Moore’s entirely praiseworthy mass movement may therefore be restricted to himself, and a smattering of oddballs. If he does land in prison, he will share that distinction with his ex-proprietor, Conrad Black, who languishes in a Florida jail. These are strange times when newspaper tycoons and former editors end up being incarcerated. I shall certainly visit Mr Moore, and may get a bit of a campaign going myself to have him released early. Or should I surreptiously pay his licence fee so that he can be spared the unhappiness that otherwise lies before him?