Here come the new kids on the block

WHEN I were but a lad, the accounts department was a dusty Dickensian relic full of smelly old Miss Havishams and little rotund Pickwickian men in powdered wigs who wrote with quill pens in dusty ledgers all day long. They were locked away in a remote upstairs office and our contact with them was minimal.

Once a week we’d nervously approach a sliding glass hatch in the wall, swindle sheets in hand, where a stern woman would hand over hard cash (yes, children, hard cash) with a grim reluctance that suggested that it was coming out of her own purse. Even more trying was any attempt to secure a cash advance even when it had been signed off by the news editor and was necessary for a job. The form would be laid out on a desk and scrutinised by at least three clerks, while suspicious glances were shot at the innocent applicant.

However, these trials apart, I think we mostly regarded them with indifference, if not disdain. As far as the newsroom was concerned, these odd people had little to do with our newspapers. They collected the money from advertisers and paid our wages, but when it came to the hurly-burly of daily deadlines, they were as back-of-house as back-of-house could be.

In those days we all had our own pubs: one for the hacks, one for the management, one for the comps, one for the inkies and one for the advertising staff. The accounts department had their own tea-shop. That just about sums it up.

But then, over the next couple of decades, everything changed. The loonies at Johnston Press started milking profits of 30 per cent from their titles by constant acquisitions, the rest tried to follow suit and suddenly the Accountant was King. I said here a few months back that Northcliffe Newspapers was effectively fucked the Christmas morning that little Michael Pelosi unwrapped his presents to find a bright, shiny abacus inside. From that moment on, his career as a bean-counter was set and would eventually take him to the top of one the the best regional newspaper groups in the country.

But the men in grey suits, who replaced a generation of largely entrepreneurial sales-based MDs, have failed miserably. They’ve left our industry in tatters, starved of staff, editions and innovation, and providing a constantly worsening level of service after round after round of cost-cutting. So that worked well then.

But now the accountants are on the way out and there’s a new kid on the block: the open-necked, sharp-suited digital whiz-kids are taking over and, while I’m delighted to see a bit of flair and enterprise back in the business, I’m not so sure that there’s any great news for print in their arrival.

The appointment of BBC’s former new media and technology director and latterly head of Microsoft UK’s consumer and online division, Ashley Highfield, to succeed accountant John Fry as chief executive of Johnston Press, is a seismic shift for that company. Highfield has no publishing background whatsoever, never mind in the regional press, so we can only assume that the company sees its future somewhere other than in Dead Tree Distribution.

A sad thought, but maybe the time has come to accept that the spiral of our terminal decline is reaching helter-skelter speed. It’s every man for the lifeboats and let’s grab a digital job while we can.

This is an extract from the Grey Cardigan’s column in the print edition of Press Gazette. To get the full version, subscribe now.

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