As newspaper budgets decline and their taste for provincial news in turn diminishes, British news agencies have been forced to adapt.
Vice chairman of the National Association of Press Agencies Chris Johnson believes that in an ever-more celebrity-driven market, the shrewdest agencies are surviving by following the money, but he says this is likely to be at the peril of quality national newspapers.
The past 20 years have changed the face of British news agencies. The trend in the national press has been to cut back on provincial news, traditionally the stronghold of agency copy.
In addition, newspaper offices have been cutting budgets, but continuing rounds of staff redundancies have not been filtering down to the news agencies as extra work. Johnson says that agencies will stand or fall on their ability to adapt.
‘Appetites for news in national newspapers change; they are volatile and vary from day to day. It’s very difficult for agencies to predict what is wanted and what the editor will rate.
” It’s got to have an edge. We have to follow the market and it is becoming more celebrity, showbiz and television orientated stories; something that’s quirky and as relevant in Basingstoke as it is in Bootle. There has been a lot of growth in magazines and pictures.”
Although Johnson admits this sea change has presented challenges to news agencies, he argues that newspapers are the ones at greatest risk as they continue to turn their backs on the bread and butter regional stories.
‘We are down to the lowest ever content of provincial news and I think it is at the peril of national newspapers not to use news about real people. I dread to think what will happen if the trend continues.
” It’s suicide for national newspapers. They have the luxury of a standing army of reporters and photographers in towns and cities all across Britain at no cost unless they use them.”
The advent of regional newspaper syndication departments in the early Nineties, which increased competition as well as changing news room structures, has made it more difficult to build contacts with newspaper desks, according to Johnson.
‘The rapport that we once had with news desks has broken down to a certain extent. We used to just speak to one person on the desks, but over the past 25 years it has broken down into specialisms.
” Marketing our material to the right desks is a job in itself.”
On the positive side, Johnson says that the internet has thrown up many new opportunities for agencies, and technology has allowed them to produce more material.
‘I think the way the internet has evolved is very exciting, but it is still in its infancy. It’s certainly opened up a bigger market to agencies; we can move a picture from here to any point on the globe in a matter of minutes.
” It varies enormously from agency to agency. We have to roll with the punches. The biggest challenge is keeping the business ticking over while developing new markets in online, magazines, PR, even national newspapers.”
Despite its benefits, the internet throws up one of the biggest challenges the sector faces; copyright infringement.
Johnson says: ‘It’s systemised theft. We have a story that we sell to a national newspaper, they publish it, they then stick it on their website and pay for it or not depending on how keen we are watching or how honest they are.
” The Guardian is scrupulously honest and a few others follow suit.
‘The law says the internet is a different medium to print. It is published worldwide and a separate payment is due to the copyright holder.
‘National newspapers currently are trying to say if it’s been used in the paper, we want to pay for it once and not again. All our legal advice says it doesn’t hold water legally.
‘It’s another form of institutionalised theft and Napa is consulting lawyers actively. The biggest issue for agencies is defending our copyright material.”
Johnson believes agencies need to embrace the changes that have arisen over the years and remains optimistic about their future.
‘My impression is that we have to change or die,” he says. “You have to chase the money. Those that have succeeded in changing and surviving the most lucrative markets do best.
” My guess is that we are holding our own as an industry.”