The internet cannot take all the blame for the decline of newspapers, owners who are ‘giving up the ghost’must take some responsibility. That is what former Guardian editor Peter Preston told the Future of Newspapers conference in Cardiff.
He said that ‘inertia, fatalism and cost-cutting’combined with social changes have played a crucial role.
‘The risk is that we spend so much time discussing the dangers and not lifting our eyes to see round the corner.”
Newspapers such as The London Evening News and Star were killed off long before the rise of the internet, he said, by changes in society. These included the changing nature of city centres, the declining use of public transport and people no longer working set hours.
‘The reasons for buying hugely diminished. Life changed but the newspapers didn’t.”
Now – following a ‘golden era’where ‘the only thing better than buying a newspaper was selling one’– profits are falling and newspaper chains are struggling to sell titles.
‘In terms of profits, they’ve lost their allure; and in terms of influence many owners now shun the limelight. It’s neither a particularly glamorous nor lucrative game,’he said.
Preston also pointed the finger at free newspapers.
‘thelondonpaper is causing problems to The Sun; London Lite is causing problems to the Mail. Each is depressing profits on the house that publishes it.
‘Have evening newspapers fought back with investment? Did the Evening Standard set up satellites? London is the size of Austria, remember.”
Newspapers should be addressing challenges head-on, he said. ‘The difficulty is seeing where the technology is going to be in 10 years’ time.’
A lack of quality in management is another factor, said Preston.
‘You need to get good people in journalism – and that’s difficult when you’re asking graduates to work for two years on £13,500. You have to think about how you attract not just good-quality journalists but good-quality managers for the next 20 to 30 years.”
But Preston also said: ‘If we wanted a good story to tell, we could have one. If circulations of free papers were counted, there would be no decline at all.
‘There has been a 2.3 per cent rise in the circulations of newspapers globally in the past year; revenues are up 3.7 per cent. Circulations are up 12 per cent if you include free papers.”