Why looking back to the future leaves us clueless

It can seem like a rerun of the Seventies.

The NUJ has referred to the “deepening crisis” in the industry, and is to hold a protest in Manchester and a rally in London in November.

Most weeks, Press Gazette reports on disputes in the regional and local industry, concerned with pay or job cuts and threatening industrial action.

PG itself is campaigning for the restoration of old-style coverage of local government and suggests with empathy that experienced, skilled journalists in the regions should be “protected” in some way, and their pension-fund managements investigated where black holes loom.

All this is understandable. Neither individuals nor their institutional representatives relish job losses or radical change. But the industry is not facing a rerun of the Seventies.

What is happening is much more profound and complex, and no one really knows how it will play out in the next eight to 10 years.

The Seventies was the decade of “knock down, drag out” industrial relations. It did few people any good but maybe was a necessary prelude to the Eighties, when the combination of legislation, a cash influx for newspaper owners from their Reuters sahresand sheer inevitability brought about the introduction of what we were then all pleased to call “new technology”. And there was relatively little confrontation after Eddie Shah and Wapping.

The Nineties was a kind of golden age. Not many of the new launches survived but there was an explosion of supplements, and returns on capital became acceptable for most groups though not for all titles.

But there was a cloud, as there nearly always is. By the late Nineties online new technology with a vengeance was growing exponentially from the lowest of bases. Gurus and the flood of inital public offerings combined around 1998-2000 to predict the death of newspapers by about now.

That has not happened. But the temporary relief afforded eight to nine years ago by the overpriced IPOs has gone and some would again argue that the only game in town is online.

There is nearly but not quite enough action around to support that view. An early sign was the sale by News International of its Times Supplements Group, heavily dependent on public-sector recruitment advertising which is now on the move.

In London, Manchester and elsewhere, free newspapers were seen as the first, easiest line of defence against the decline of the sister paid-for titles.

It is a big leap from that first line of defence to setting up dedicated online facilities.

This is what is happening with the integrated, multimedia newsrooms, on a 24-hour cycle.

While all this is challenging the roots of the industry in the UK, the tectonic plates are moving in the US.

The highest-profile shift is the £2.5bn cash bid by News Corp. for the Dow Jones company and its flagship The Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ is the most influential business publication in the world, and should remain so with globalisation, the spread of broadband, and English as the main language in international commerce.

This must be the attraction of The WSJ for Murdoch, setting the paper up for geographical extension and moving it into multimedia, a bracing prospect for the FT.

The unhappy journalists and others on The WSJ have reacted no differently to, say, local government reporters threatened with a takeover or redundancy. They downed keyboards for a day and chased other suitors with no luck. And the controlling members of the Bancroft family seem likely to conclude the deal with the 76-year-old chairman of News Corp.

The News Corp bid for the DJ/WSJ has claimed most of the media attention since it was launched in early May.

A few weeks earlier and with less fanfare, the Thomson Corporation (TTC) made a successful £8bn uncontested bid for control of Reuters, which should work its way through the regulators by the first half of next year. The deal fell out of the headlines because it was agreed, was overtaken by News Corp/WSJ, and because it is about a business-tobusiness range of sophisticated onscreen services to banks and the like.

There are 29,000 employees in the two groups, and cost savings will be taken. But the point of the TTC/Reuters deal is developing and exploiting the growing business market, and enabling the former No 2 (Reuters) and No 3 (TTC) to give the No 1, Bloombergs, a harder time. While Reuters/TTC are at the regulators, however, Bloombergs is recruiting staff and extending its services.

Elsewhere in this burgeoning online market, Google and Microsoft have each spent more than $1bn on acquisitions so far this year, and socialinterface services such as My Face are transforming people’s lives.

All this explains why the industrial unrest reported in PG cannot be dismissed as the Seventies revisited.

But there are still about 15,000 journalists working in the regional and local press; local titles operate successfully underneath the radar; there are more people with journalistic skills working in “communications”

in the public and private sectors than ever before; journalists who are asked to develop multimedia skills out of their print backgrounds deserve and should get more money; above all the industry should soon find ways of converting online hits into upfront revenues.

Then managements will be able to put together new model business plans with journalistic skills at their heart.

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