James Harding: 'Price has been divorced from value in the newspaper business'

Times editor James Harding’s speech to the 2009 Society of Editors’ Conference in full:

The shape of the media in 2020 will be decided by nothing quite so much as what we are doing now. The news business – and, in particular, the newspaper and newspaper company that I work for – is embarking on a revolution.

We are setting out to rewrite the economics of gathering and delivering the news. We have a serious purpose: we want to safeguard the future of reporting. And, in my allotted few minutes, I’d like to say how and why.

When John Walter published the first edition of the newspaper that became The Times on Saturday, January 1, 1785, he charged tuppence ha’penny a copy. This represented the first salvo in what proved to be The Times’ long history of price wars and skirmishes. The striking fact about the price of John Walter’s paper, though, was that it was more than double the cost of a cup of coffee. In fact, it was more than double the cost of a decent tumbler of gin.

In 1785 they used to say that you could get ‘drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence’. The paper cost tuppence ha’penny.

In the two centuries since, price has become divorced from value in the newspaper business. There is not the time here to examine why. But, these days, a tall Americano – a cup of hot, brackish water sold by a coffee shop – costs almost double the price of The Times. For which you get more than 120 years of combined experience in reporting British politics, more than any other paper. For which you get the largest network of foreign correspondents of any British broadsheet, not to mention dedicated bureaus in Baghdad and Kabul. A bench of sports writers that includes Simon Barnes, Matt Dickinson, Matthew Syed, Michael Atherton and Jonny Wilkinson and not just the best specialists on all the usual beats, but a correspondent covering the ocean, another on electronic games and, of course, one on birdwatching.

We provide an unbelievable wealth of information, ideas and, whether you have an artistic mind or a business brain, inspiration. We provide it at an incredibly reasonable cost. And, by the way, journalism costs: The Times was the only paper to run a bureau in Baghdad throughout the duration of the Iraq war. It cost approximately £1.5 million. This year we were the only British paper to send a reporter to northern Sri Lanka, where she unearthed a death toll of more than 20,000 Tamils. We are the only national paper to have a weekly section on football, The Game, a weekly supplement on the property market, Bricks & Mortar, and a monthly magazine on science and the environment, Eureka.

We are not reducing our investment in journalism, we are increasing it.

We’re doing so because it’s what our readers – our customers and potential customers – want.

The world is not dumbing down, it’s dumbing up. Last year the British Museum overtook Blackpool Pleasure Beach as Britain’s top cultural attraction. The point is: the demand for dogged reporting, serious thinking and witty, high-minded journalism is growing.

We believe, therefore, that we have a product of great value. And a market that wants what we have to offer. Those of us who find ourselves working in newspapers at this most challenging of times – and let’s be clear, we are in the fight of our lives – is to carry newspapers across the threshold into the digital age. In short, it means putting independent journalism on an economically sustainable footing.

At The Times, this means we are taking three steps:

One, we are going to take on the culture of free. We have seen it all but destroy the music business. We cannot afford, as a business or a society, for that to happen to news. So from the spring of next year, we are going to start charging for the digital editions of The Times. We are still working on the exact pricing model, but I expect we will end up with a price to buy the day’s paper – ie. a 24-hour price for The Times online – and a subscription price too. In the same spirit, we are putting an end to the practice of giving away the paper. We are cancelling all our bulks. We want to stop indulging in the trickery and fakery of the ABCs. We want to be focused on real sales to real customers. And, by the way, our advertisers would like us to do that too.

Two, we are going to confront those people who we think represent a serious threat to the future of independent journalism. This means having a conversation with the likes of Google, which extracts far more value from content sites than they give in return. And it means addressing the challenge posed by the BBC: the corporation that was created to broadcast television and radio now spends more of the public’s money on its website than all other newspapers combined. And it gives the news away free. The public may well want this service – the BBC is an outstanding news organisation, albeit constitutionally constrained from doing campaigning journalism – but we need to be clear about the price we are all paying.

Three, we are going to take care of our customers. We have tended in recent years to treat our best customers worst and our worst customers best. We give the paper away to people who could not care less. We take for granted those people who pay for it every day. We have launched a direct-to-home delivery service, so that you can get the paper in your pyjamas. We have launched Times+, a rewards programme for our readers. We’re giving loyal readers books, films and music of real value; we’re inviting them to concerts, shows, conferences and events. And we’re giving them discounts on a host of travel, entertainment, food and drink.

Looking ahead to 2020, it is clear that not all newspapers will survive. What matters is that independent reporting of the news survives. For that to happen, we have to put the news business on an economically sustainable footing. We will have to work together to reestablish the public expectation that they pay for what is a valuable – sometimes invaluable – part of their daily lives and the society we live in. For a democratic society requires a real Fourth Estate, a genuinely independent check on power and a real capacity to investigate the powerful. We are in the fight of our lives. And we are fighting to protect what we really believe in, namely what is at the heart of our journalism. Reporting.

In 2020 the media will include a host of different business driven by technologies that are not even invented yet. They will be divided into three groups: devices, platforms and content providers. Some will be vertically integrated. Others won’t be. My concern, as a journalist, is with the content creators. That’s us. For there will, though, be only a handful of news organisations that independently and professionally report the news. We are going to make sure The Times is one of them.

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