NUJ conference reveals New Ways to Make Journalism Pay

It was encouraging to see National Union of Journalists members get their hands dirty on Saturday morning and explore New Ways to Make Journalism Pay at a special one-off conference organised by London Freelance Branch.

Too often in the past, at NUJ meetings I’ve attended, its seemed like the debate has not gone much beyond Marxism-inspired calls to arms. I remember one NUJ conference a few years ago when a motion was proposed that the union should call for the nationalisation of the top 100 FTSE companies – not the most immediately practical solution I thought at the time.

The fact that Saturday’s event at the NUJ headquarters was sold out showed that journalists realise more and more that we have to come up with some of the commercial solutions to saving our industry.

Among those speaking was former Yorkshire Post business editor David Parkin who in 2007 set up Thebusinessdesk.com. It now employs around seven journalists in Leeds and Manchester covering business news for the north of England.

It’s a thriving and expanding business and shows that the advertising funded online model can work if you’re dealing with high-value readers and have low fixed costs.

It’s also an inspiring example of what can be achieved when journalists fed up with the endless cost-cutting of the big media owners have the courage to strike out on their own.

Another niche-online local start-up which appears to be doing well is Manchester Confidential.

Angie Sammons, editor of sister-website Liverpool Confidential, told the conference: “Local newspapers have destroyed it for themselves because of their reliance on PRs”, Jon Slattery reports on his blog.

She said that Manchester Confidential sees its future in paid-for content and charges subscribers between £30 and £60 a year.

Right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes told the conference that he now attracts two million page views a month to his website (Jon Slattery again).

Slattery reports that Fawkes, aka Paul Staines, said: “I have achieved the Marxist ideal. I own the means of production and distribution. I have job security, I can’t be fired and do much better than many journalists.”

I was one of the speakers in the morning session and noted that the economic climate for journalism is already looking a lot brighter in early 2010 than it was a year ago.

Back then the likes of Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press were selling their shares for pennies – signalling that investors really didn’t think regional media had much of a future.

In December 2009 Trinity Mirror shares were selling for 31p compared with around £1.50 today. Johnston Press were on 8p compared with 25p today.

In both cases they are still far lower than their peaks, but the signs are at least now more encouraging that investors see them as having a longer term future.

And so far (and I admit it is very early days) 2010 has been much more about new launches and new economic activity in the journalism sector than a year ago, when all we were writing about was redundancies and closures.

We’ve had Champion Media launching a new free weekly in the North West, Spear’s launching new digital editions, Sky News opening a new studio in the City of London , and David Hall publishing launching a new international gun magazine.

As for my two penneth on new ways to make journalism pay. When it comes to niche business and local media I think we are going to see ever more small web-based start-ups taking a slice of the pie.

They’re going to make money from web advertising, sponsored emails, events and in some cases free or paid-for print publications. There’s not going to much new in the sources of income (personally I can’t see paywalls working in the vast majority of cases) – what is going to be different is that these start-ups have much lower fixed costs, less staff journalists probably working harder than they did before.

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