... Gets it Right -- Well, Almost
By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
On the face of it, Britain's, at least, London's newspaper industry is thriving. Strident news hawkers mingle among the throngs in high-density areas like the Strand and Oxford Street distributing the numerous new free-circulation titles that compete vigorously for reader attention. The daily main-streamers, The Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, and the like, pack news agent stands that overflow, as well, with special interest and international papers.
Like the news cycle itself, currently roiled by the scandal of expense-account gorging by Members of Parliament (many of whom are cohorts of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labour Party), serious papers here are cheeky, irreverent, and free-wheeling -- strictly unlike their sombre, somber, and slavishly serious American counterparts.
'The Guardian would be radical in the U.S. But it's just main stream here,' sums up a reporter friend here, Kit Chellel. Meantime, The Evening Standard has been colourfully revamped as the London Evening Standard, following a bling binge in Florence that launched a new Russian ownership, led by oligarch Alexander Lebedev. And just two weeks ago Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian was trumpeting rosy signs of his paper's revival -- an circulation increase and a national Best Newspaper award.
Amidst this ballyhoo of putative success and growth, however, industry observers report that not all is as sanguine as the flurry of newsprint, brandished by hawkers in the street and by loyal strap-hanging readers in the Underground and on buses, might at initially suggest. First, Lebedev bought The Standard for just £1 -- and, in return, received a debt load in the millions. As far as The Guardian is concerned, yes, the paper won awards -- but for web pages. Dead-tree circulation increase? Just 0.7 percent. Rusbridger also failed to mention that 50 Guardian staffers will be sacked, er, 'made redundant' by year's end.
The impact of media woe has even afflicted the crown jewel of the British news business, the BBC. In the coming months, 49 news reporters will lose their jobs.
If this doom and gloom sounds remarkably similar to the pathetic decline of American main-streamers, particularly in recent, months, you'd be almost right. But probably, for the wrong reasons.
One of several exceptions is The Lawyer, a weekly that friend Kit Chellel works for, published by one of the few media big boys, Centaur Media, that has the City shouting and touting. (The Standard recommends a 'buy').
No wonder, Chellel told me over drinks at the Blackfriar, a pub not far from Fleet Street, where most of the nationals used to be edited. If you want to know about Centaur success, just ask the half-dozen or so reporters laid off from The Lawyer in the last year, Chellel said. He made the cut. He's now one of six staffers still running the paper.
Ultimately, Centaur's true success is attributed to its new-age business model. Free circulation to lawyers with an ever-growing web-site that shoots 50,000 e-mail blasts per day. In contrast, weekly circulation is an anemic 31,000. 'The free web-site is lighthearted and very popular,' Chellel, a former Los Angeles-based freelance for The Independent, told me.
Variants of The Lawyer's business model, principally adhering to free circulation, has now become a staple of the proliferating field of ad-packed daily freebies. They have frothy monikers like City A.M. (not to be confused with The Financial Times), the london paper (not to be confused with the Standard), and, summing up the genre, London Lite (not to be confused with anything). Recent headline: 'My second home is a £30 tent.'
The 'lites' are glib, tightly edited, and are all tabloids -- a form that almost everyone here agrees is the compact format of the future. (The Financial Times and The Telegraph still publish in broadsheet, as do most Nother American quality newspapers).The lites also have another common denominator -- almost all their content is ripped off from the main-streamers, be it print or the BBC. One result: Low overhead.
Another result, according to Dave Rotchelle, an officer of the London Press Club with whom I shared tea, biscuits, and clotted cream recently, is the equally piss-poor quality of the news in the lites. 'That's the really big worry -- the quality of journalism, following pay cuts and layoffs,' said Rotchelle, a news photographer who's also head of the Freelance Branch of 30,000-member strong National Union of Journalists. 'The abundance of newspapers at news agents are deceptive -- many of freebies and others (paid) are shadows of their former selves.'
Like others, Rotchelle is concerned that funding cuts in news gathering will mean a decline in news quality.'Still, others argue that the British press, as opposed to the American newspaper industry, is in a better position to weather the current shockwaves of worldwide recession. For one thing, there are fewer newspapers. The UK has about 35 daily national papers. The US has about 1,500 dailies coast to coast. (Most are local yokels).The result? More people in Britain are reading fewer papers. The no-brainer? Fewer papers+higher circulation = more revenue.
British papers have other lessons to teach their American cousins: Papers need to be leaner. (Two-ton mama Sunday papers are a thing of the past). They need to be more mobile. Instead of fixed satellite bureaux, reporters should be part of a flying squad. Funding shouldn't be spent on redundancies. Why are there 2,000-odd White House reporters? That's ego. Not news.
Lastly, American main-streamers need to learn the most important path to success, another teachable moment thanks to the Brit press: kick-ass journalism. That's what The Telegraph did in breaking the MP scandal story. It takes time. It takes money. It takes commitment.
When the Yanks learn these lessons, American journalism -- both print and Internet -- will be revamped, hopefully retooled to serve the public interest.'The British media is the best in the world. We will get through this,' Dave Rotchelle said.
As for the American media? The jury is still out.
GETTING IT RIGHT
One of the first successful models of the free-circulation tab was Metro, a Swedish chain that in the late 1990's splashed its model of cheeky give-ways from Stockholm to New York -- and Philadelphia.
But not London. The London Evening Standard, then The Evening Standard, pre-empted Metro's intro to London by registering the name before the Stockholm outfit could do so. The Standard then went ahead and introduced its own version of Metro.
Segue to Philadelphia, 1999. Same scenario. Different players. This time, The Philadelphia Inquirer, then owned by Knight-Ridder, passed. Swedish Metro was launched. Knight-Ridder tried to ban its distribution via Septa.
Hello, censorship. Hello, lame-brained main-stream.The Inky never thought a free-model daily like Metro would take off. OK. This one is NOT Brian Tierney's fault!