The future of Fleet Street: dynamic or disheartening?

Eight months after taking over as editor of the Daily Telegraph, Will Lewis used a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the rededication of St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street to set out his vision on how journalists can survive the digital future.

He was scathing about what he sees as the mistakes made by a ‘bloated, lazy and arrogant’press after Wapping. But he was optimistic about the future of the national press for those who subscribe to his editorial vision.

Lewis pointed out that many British national newspaper circulations had been on the slide ‘before the current digital revolution was even in its infancy”. ‘Having fought and won the battle with the print unions in the mid-Eighties and witnessed the introduction of new production technology, the industry became once again bloated, lazy and arrogant,’he said.

‘Fleet Street continued to operate under a number of the same assumptions about its readers, just as those readers began changing their reading and consumption patterns and in many cases walking away from newspapers they once held dear.

‘What was the response of the industry? Not much it would seem, except to take heart in the fact we were all in the same sinking boat.

‘The newspaper industry took the beating it deserved, because it took readers for granted and continued to make assumptions about them that no longer held true.

‘Sure, in the Nineties, newspapers launched websites, or rather offered their newspapers online. But the truth is that Fleet Street retained its role as an imposer of information on large aggregates of passive audiences.

‘Lip service was paid to the need to embrace online and different ways of working, and very little actually happened. When the first dot com bubble burst, it gave temporary succour to the ostriches among us. But the advent of widely available broadband ripped our squawking heads from the sand.”

Lewis has presided over radical changes to working patterns at the Telegraph, which aim to integrate print and online production, expand multimedia content and provide increasingly detailed material online.

In recent months, this has included the launch of MyTelegraph, a personalised homepage and blogging platform, and the Telegraph Hospital Guide, which provides access to a searchable database of detailed local NHS statistics

Looking to the future, Lewis said the newspaper groups that will prosper on the internet are those that ‘get over themselves and recognise that simply handing down a definition of news and views each day, or each week, is not enough”.

‘As well as getting our readers to join in, we at the Telegraph see our mission as providing information and guidance to our readers to help them make better decisions. For example, which hospital to have their knee operation,’he said. ‘Being relevant, being as local as possible and as personal as possible is a difficult trick to pull off for a national media brand.”

Three Steps

Summing up with three key points, Lewis said: ‘One: an improved online presence will benefit newspaper circulation rather than harm it. Two: user-generated content will become one of the most powerful forces in our industry. And three: localisation and personalisation of content will be the key to the future success of national media brands.

‘I believe the future is bright for those newspapers that ‘get it’ – without wanting to sound too grim I think it’s brutal and bleak for those that do not. If we understand and embrace the challenge presented by the problems of the media landscape I am confident that Fleet Street can enjoy the next 50 years as it has enjoyed the last.”

Veteran media commentator Ray Snoddy hit back at Lewis’s optimistic view of the digital future of journalism. ‘There is still a great newspaper culture in this country, but management are doing their best to kill it off,’he said.

Pointing out that journalists are becoming increasingly overworked, he said: ‘Journalists, instead of holding Governments to account, will become mere processors of words. Newspapers are becoming the new slave traders, and journalists will become people who never get out and are attached to a computer screen – and that’s the future of journalism and newspapers.”

Opportunity

Snoddy agreed that online represented an opportunity for newspapers, but said: ‘I really wonder whether national newspapers should be into the personal and the local. For the national media, shouldn’t the emphasis lie in the opposite direction – bringing together communities and offering a more unifying view of society?”

Responding to a question about the problems created by downsizing, lower wages and multiskilling, Snoddy said: ‘I always wanted to be a journalist and was extraordinarily proud to be a journalist. I still am.

‘I’m really concerned about people of my children’s generation. I see them going into journalism, I see them coming out again two or three years later disillusioned, disheartened, overworked, poorly paid, badly treated by moronic management. And they walk and get other jobs.

‘That word will spread back to the universities – you don’t want to go and work at a newspaper where they will just exploit you, [there’s] no sense of loyalty, you will work your butt off for five years, and then some manager will decide that you’re out.

‘I think that is a really serious long-term crisis that has to be addressed. There is a possible downward spiral. More and more asked of editorial resources, less and less distinguished and distinctive journalism, apart from a few highly paid columnists. That game will not survive over a 20-year cycle, it just won’t.”

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