Times editor John Witherow has said news publishers should “experiment ruthlessly” and “innovate faster” to find ways to reach new audiences and make news pay.
He said marrying the “sharpest technology with the highest quality journalism” was the “secret of success” for newsbrands and pointed to audio and video as a means of expanding reach.
“It’s not just podcasts either,” he said. “It could be by radio too. It’s a logical development for people on the move, walking, cycling, in the gym, on trains and in cars.
“Soon automatic technology will be able to read articles out loud. We need to do this because we need to cater to both our ageing existing readers and appeal to new ones.”
Delivering the annual Society of Editors Satchwell Lecture at Stationers’ Hall, London, last night, he went on: “Our new readers have come of age with Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime.
“They understand that if you want a good service you pay for it, and our challenge is to make that service good enough.
“I think we can learn something here from the tech companies. Like they have, we need to innovate faster. To experiment ruthlessly, to invest in tech development.”
He said: “The task is to adapt to the new technology, to make it our friend, to put it at the service of our journalism. And if we do that we will reach more people quicker than ever before.”
He added: “The good news for The Times is that, in the quest for new audiences, we do not have to fundamentally change who and what we are. We just need to remember that the only thing that will survive the revolution will be quality”.
Witherow, who has edited the Times since 2013, also took aim at Facebook and Google, saying they were “threatening our very existence” as news publishers by taking the digital advertising revenue “we hoped to rely on”.
He said the tech giants had “refused to pay a fair price for the copy that fortifies their platforms”, adding: “They are unregulated, unchecked and unedifying in their disregard for the fractured society that is a byproduct of their commercial success.”
During his career spanning five decades, Witherow reported on the Falklands War while on assignment with the British navy and military.
In criticising Facebook he said the social media giant “doesn’t fund war correspondents” while reporting from war zones had become “increasingly dangerous and increasingly expensive” for newspapers.
Setting out a series of predictions Witherow said he believed in that the internet giants “will be regulated and deemed to be publishers” binding them by the same regulatory constraints as newspapers.
He said too that he hoped they would be broken up.
The former Sunday Times editor forecast that the BBC would move from a compulsory licence fee to a voluntary subscription, which he said would mean a “more level playing field in which competition can thrive, fairly”.
And on a buoyant note he predicted that printed newspapers “will be around for a very long time”.
“It’s true our sales in print are declining but only by a few per cent a year, which means that with a circulation of roughly 400,000 there’s still a lot of years to come,” he said.
He said the reach of serious, general interest newspapers that invest in quality would also grow in the decades ahead.
On changing attitudes towards the media, which he said was “generally held in low regard”, Witherow said one of the more interesting answers to this was so-called “constructive journalism”.
“This can be misunderstood as reporting ‘good news’, an idea most journalists turn their noses up at,” he said. “But let me explain how I understand it. For this I thank the Danish journalist Ulrik Haagerup who has visited The Times to show us his research findings.
“We are all familiar with Kipling’s six honest serving men: the ‘What’, ‘Where’, ‘When’, ‘Who’, ‘Why’ and ‘How’. And we are all familiar with the fact that our trade has come under pressure from fake news and from an American president who derides the lying ‘mainstream media’ as untrustworthy.
“Constructive journalism is one way in which the trust in the mainstream press can be restored. How? By adding one more element to the mix. ‘What Now?’ Many of us have become immune to the relentlessly negative slant of much of our news coverage.
“Taking the old adage that news should be ‘something that someone, somewhere wants to suppress’, we can easily commission stories digging up dirt and crime and exposing evils. And of course we should do this. But constructive news aims to empower the reader by spending more time on the ‘What Now’.”
He explained: “So when we report the London knife crime epidemic we spend more time explaining how Glasgow combated the equally bad problem they once had.
“When we cover climate change we seek to explain which green solutions work. If we have a teen suicide problem we look at how other countries deal with the problem, and where there are hopeful remedies.
“We can also use our data team to enhance the journalism.”
He said mastering the art of constructive news can “improve the image of the media because readers will begin to feel we can help them improve their lives”.
Press Gazette asked Witherow if he believed competition between newspapers had led to a bullying culture in newsrooms and whether The Times had been part of that culture under his editorship.
He said there “musn’t be bullying” in newsrooms, adding: “I think newsrooms are driven, they should be driven, there should be competition… but there shouldn’t be bullying and I don’t think there is at The Times.”
The Times is currently defending an employment tribunal brought by its former Scotland night editor Katherine O’Donnell, who has alleged that the paper has a sexist newsroom culture that discriminates against transgender people. She is suing the title for unfair dismissal.
The Satchwell Lecture is named in honour of Bob Satchwell, former executive editor of the Society of Editors who was forced to step down in March 2017 over ill health. He was unable to attend yesterday’s event.
Picture: Press Gazette