Gavin O'Reilly: Newspapers are in rude health

Newspapers are in rude health and will be the public’s “ultimate browser”, selecting and presenting the important things in the face of huge amounts of data in a world of information overlead, according to Independent News and Media chief operating officer Gavin O’Reilly.

O’Reilly, whose company publishes The Independent and 180 newspapers worldwide, quoted News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch who said in his company’s 2007 annual report that “while I share the concerns of those who fret about the future of newspapers, I have never shared their sense of gloom”.

Speaking at the opening of the Society of Editors’ Conference this evening in Manchester, O’Reilly said the overall perception of the industry was one of “inexorable slide downwards” and called such statements “the most bizarre case of wilful self-mutilation ever in the annals of the industry”.

He said: “While the newspaper can hardly be described as a boom volume industry in circulation terms, it is in fact winning well in in a world of heightened digital fragmentation.”

O’Reilly said that the future of newspapers has “very little to do with online” but that their biggest challenge was “consumer apathy”.

He argued that many leading titles and media groups “haven’t produced a single innovation in years”.

Both the advent of free newspapers and marketing-led giveaways posed a real threat to newspapers, he said, and he asked why anyone “would go out and buy a newspaper 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”.

O’Reilly said the groups who own the free-sheets were “often marked by lower margins or worse” and he criticised them for assuming that young people who do not buy newspaper might start to do so when they reach “43 and a half years old”, describing the thinking as “a load of old tosh”.

He said the newspaper industry was worth $190m and reaches 1.4bn people “of all creed and all ages”, each day. Media commentators had “oversimplified a complex issue”, by pointing to online as a reason for newspapers’ decline, he said.

O’Reilly admitted paid-for circulations have been falling in the recent past, but asked: “Why is it that something as sophisticated always gets relegated to an oversimplified gladiatorial spat between print and online?”

He called for the media industry to pay more attention to consumers’ habits online. “Do any of us really know what people are doing online?”, he said. “Are they ploughing through pages of well-crafted prose, or watching mindless videos on YouTube, or social networking, or searching for a plumber?

“Those of us who might seek to to legitimately champion the future of print within this media maelstrom – we are often castigated to to the realms of Neanderthal-like people who just don’t get it. I assure you, I get it.”

User-generated content will “have its place”, he said, but more important was the unique selling point of newspapers – “well-crafted and well-edited content that has faced the rigours of of a well-honed editing process”.

O’Reilly gave several swipes to media commentators and young City analysts whom he described as “teenage scribbers” for their “flimsy predictions”, and said he saw a different picture.

He said: “I see a world where quality journalism will stand the test of time and the constant onslaught of technological innovation. Some will me accuse me of wishful thinking – but for my part I see it as a worthy financial strategy built on a belief that trustworthy journalism will become even more relevant, even more vital in this digital age.”

Speaking about the future of editorial outsourcing, O’Reilly said he had just returned from Bangalore where PA’s pre-press operation does work for “every newspaper executive in this room”.

Responding to a question from Press Gazette about Mecom executive chairman David Montgomery’s comments last week about the need for sub-editors, O’Reilly suggested that there was less room for sub-editors in the future.

He said that a recent study at one of Independent News and Media’s Irish papers had found that one piece of copy went through eight pairs of hands before being published.

He said: “The NUJ will tell you that that it is quality control”, but he questioned the need for having separate journalists to write picture captions and headlines.

When asked about pay for journalists in regional and local journalists, he said: “I see a future when journalists will be able to demand premium rates. It’s not all about cost – it’s about how you get quality journalism.”

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