Gavin O'Reilly: The press must stop penning its own obituary

Newspapers are stronger than ever, even though they can be their own worst enemies

Monday 05 November 2007 01:00

For an industry billed as the "4th Estate" with a proud legacy stretching back over 400 years – it is remarkable to me how unsophisticated the commentary is on the press these days, and specifically how and where the newspaper sits in the media matrix. It is equally astonishing how herd-like and insecure our industry has become and somewhat galling to recognise that much of the negative perception has actually been shaped by those in newspapers.

There seems to be a new sport in the sometimes cliquey, over-reported and London-centric world of UK media – and that is the growing tide of reportage on the demise of newspapers. Too often this is written with a misguided sense of authority and – bizarrely – with a large dose of glee.

Some may accuse me of shooting the messenger but I assure you that I am not. As president of the World Association of Newspapers, I'm keen to ensure this dialogue starts off in the right tenor. My comments are not necessarily meant to be a facile rallying call for newspapers but I make no apologies if that is the consequence.

I want to tell you that, Rupert Murdoch was right. I always find that that's a very easy way to start a talk at a newspaper conference. After all, he's the most successful media proprietor ever – having taken a small local newspaper group from Adelaide, Australia and built it into the most impressive, multi-media conglomerate the world has ever seen. So when Rupert speaks, you'd simply be foolish not to listen very carefully.

Some while back, Rupert gave an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. His speech was provocative, directional and humbling for all of us in the newspaper industry. He articulated the many failings and bold realities of our industry. He challenged us to redefine our understanding of the newspaper in this digital age. Vis-à-vis the many opportunities on the web, he acknowledged that many newspaper executives had been "remarkably, unaccountably complacent". His was a clarion call to all of us and I know that many newspaper executives responded in a positive way.

That said – reading and listening to the subsequent press reports of Rupert's speech might have made you conclude that the end of newspapers was a dead certainty. I assure you that was not what Rupert said, nor what he was advocating. So at the same time as Rupert positions MySpace against Facebook or launches his new Fox Financial News Network, he is also busily expanding his print operations. In the next month, he'll complete the purchase of the Wall Street Journal and, only this week, he opened his new £60m triple-width print facility in Scotland – part of a £600m investment programme – with a speech paying tribute to the enduring power of print. So I sense a man who is doing much more than just hedging his bets. Indeed, read News Corporation's 2007 Annual Report where Rupert says: "While I share the concerns of those who fret about the future of newspapers, I have never shared their sense of gloom."

And yet when I then read our high-profile media commentators – the Glovers or the Gowers or the Greenslades or the Prestons or the Wilbys – or even the newer crop of business media journalists, it is hard not to conclude that the new mantra is that the newspaper is dead or at least in the hospital ward and that media companies – traditional newspaper companies – are losing out to the internet. The perception is that the newspaper is on an inexorable slide. Virtually every report one reads, every brokerage report from the investment banks, appears to support this new conventional wisdom.

I view newspapers quite differently from the many dissenters. I see them as a vibrant, relevant and commercial proposition for readers and advertisers alike. I believe that those of us in the newspaper industry should view our future in a very expansionist way.

Armed with published and verifiable stats from the World Association of Newspapers, I could give you a quite different analysis of the global newspaper and online industries from some of the commentators. I could remind you that global sales of paid-for newspapers actually grew last year (and not just in India and China). Or I could remind you that the online advertising market is worth only $21bn (£10bn), and that 65 per cent of that is accounted for by Google, MSN and Yahoo! Or perhaps I could surprise you and tell you that our industry is a $190bn industry that is expected to grow its advertising by 17 per cent over the next five years – at a faster rate than the preceding five years.

In the UK, paid-for newspaper circulations have been falling. One can and should look for the real reasons for this, which the commentators rarely delve into. I am talking about, firstly, the rapid and much-hyped proliferation of free newspapers and, secondly, a market that has become profoundly distorted by a promotionally-led agenda.

Why go out and buy a paper if there's an odds-on chance that at least 10 people will tackle you on your way to work and try to shove a free newspaper in your face, or will entice you with a free DVD, a free CD, a wall chart and the rest? Newspaper groups whose efforts are often marked by lower margins, or worse, will justify their actions by saying they are putting a newspaper into the hands of people who wouldn't otherwise read them.

The thinking is that recruiting readers young – and getting them into the habit of newspapers – will suddenly lead to some Darwinian evolution, where at some stage (presumably when they turn 43-and-a-half) they will unilaterally trade up and start to buy a paper. What a load of old tosh!

I, for one, know that the future of media companies will be what it has always been built upon and that's content, content, content. Do I mean user-generated content? Well, that will clearly have its place but I'm really talking about distinctive, comment and analysis; well-crafted and well-edited content that has faced the rigours of a well-honed editorial process. To me, that is not only the USP of the newspaper of the past, but more critically for its future, built upon journalistic skills that are not simply an inalienable right of someone with attitude sitting in a garage in front of a PC, but rather a skill that is learned and earned.

I see a world where quality, distinctive journalism in print and online will stand the test of time and the constant onslaught of technological innovation. Some will accuse me of wishful thinking. I see it as a worthy financial strategy built on a belief that quality, established and trustworthy journalism will become even more relevant, even more vital in this growing digital age, where people are being bombarded daily with information and where, too often, the lowest common denominator wins out.

I believe the prognosis for newspapers is actually quite different to conventional wisdom. To use the parlance of the day, at Independent News & Media we see newspapers as the ultimate browser, where in essence, someone else has done the hard work for you and delivered the serendipity of life in a concise, colourful, and portable way. All for half the price of a cup of coffee.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered yesterday to the Society of Editors conference in Manchester

Gavin K O'Reilly is Group Chief Operating Officer of Independent News & Media PLC and President of the World Association of Newspapers.

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