Hold the Front Page

November 21st, 2008

I’ve suddenly become massively concerned with the future of printed journalism. It is clear that as a business model print journalism is facing competitive pressure from sources that you just wouldn’t have comprehended 15 years ago. Unfortunately as a reaction traditional media appears to be throwing away that extra value that I think gives it value.

In my day to day life I have dealings with three traditional forms of printed media (4 if you count TV Quick), The Guardian, The Birmingham Post and The Erinsborough News. Essentially I believe The Guardian is alright. They just understand the modern world and seem to have done a pretty good job of shaping it around them rather than the other way. The other two are obviously in crisis. Not a conventional business crisis with plummeting share prices and board room massacres (though there has been a bit of that). No, more of an identity crisis that has made them buy a Porsche and pinch young girls arses in a pub.

The Internet is always cited as the great motivator for change within media. This is true. The Internet has fundamentally changed the way that we look at news. We have become used to news always being current and always being free. I don’t think that this is really a reason to try and recreate the Internet within the printed media.

The great value I see with printed media is two fold. There is a front page and there is a professional narrative. The front page screams NEWS at me when I see it and makes me want to read it. The narrative comes from years of experience creating a linear experience of news. When I look at a paper I know someone has used their professionalism to decide that the news on page 2 is more important to me as a reader than the news on page 15. The Internet cannot fully achieve either of these. No site will devote their front page to one massive story. Really they don’t need to do so in order to drag people in.

Equally reading a web site is not a linear experience. There are many points of entry and the reader themselves chooses the route through to other stories. Clearly clever prominence of links facilitates this to an extent but not in the same way that the editor of a printed paper holds your hand on a daily journey of news.

Both the Birmingham Post and the Erinsborough News have recently lost their understanding of printed journalism. The Erinsborough News removed the last vestige of professionalism by allowing local hotel owner and murderer Paul Robinson to not only buy the paper but appoint himself as editor. Interestingly his stint as editor began by demonstrating some characteristics that were useful. He understood the front page. He obviously understood what his readers wanted (some of them at least). In the few weeks that he has controlled the paper I think it is fair to say that everyone he knows has obviously bought one and read it.

The decline in the Erinsborough News is obviously linked with Paul’s parochial nature. The paper’s obsession with the sex life of the school girl that lives over the road from him is going to have limited wider appeal. Unfortunately early plaudits appear to have conned him into believing that even more microscopic localism is needed. Thus hiring Susan Kennedy Kinski Kennedy as a journalist symbolises the foolish belief that a qualification in journalism now counts for absolutely nothing these days. The front page story about the wheelchair basketball team being banned from the community centre is a new low. Alright they were probably acting against disability legislation but really, do we care? No we don’t and nobody else does either.

The Birmingham Post have followed a similar path. Actually they haven’t, they’ve taken much more crazy steps than put a murderer in charge. In a move that could well wrong foot the entire industry The Birmingham Post have decided to not only reduce the amount of news but also hide it. The Birmingham Post was always a traditional broadsheet with pretensions towards something it wasn’t but still very much a focus on the news and local events. It was out of it’s time but I liked it for it.

I can’t argue with the fact that very few people ever bought it and it probably needed change. The change they settled on was to remove news from the front page. Think about that for a second. It is a newspaper but does not have news on the front page. Obviously there was a meeting to discuss this and I’m pretty sure there is a certain logic that underpins it. The main readers of the Birmingham Post have always historically been dentists, local businesses and council workers. Of these three groups local businesses are probably the only ones that are sufficient in number to be deemed to have economic power (they’re also the only ones that advertise). Businesses send out press releases every day about new things that have happened to them. This is easy journalism. Copy and paste and you have news. All of this news was previously hidden away in the middle section that everyone threw away.

Unfortunately the easy news was being thrown away and the advertisers probably knew this. So in a stroke of genius that Post decided to focus the front page on business news. Essentially press releases.

Now visitors to Birmingham who arrive at New Street Station are greeted with a front page yelling LOCAL SOLICITOR BUYS NEW HAT. It doesn’t tell the world we are a city of business. It tells the world that nothing much happened yesterday (and a certain someone now has a warm head). It is obviously not going to encourage the impulse purchase and those businesses that are featured probably would have bought it anyway.

So all in all I’m scared for the future.

At the end of the day it is probably important to bear in mind that I don’t ever buy either the Birmingham Post or the Erinsborough News. I get one given to me free and the other one doesn’t exist. 


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