Last Words? review: Why people still want good journalism

Newspapers are struggling. So charge online readers, but give them value for money

Last words? How can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print?
Last words? How can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print?
Author: Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait
ISBN-13: 978-1845496968
Publisher: Abramis
Guideline Price: £19.95

The problems are well aired: newspapers are losing circulation, advertising is down, online has ceased to hold the promise it once did, Google and Facebook are sucking up the advertising revenue, and the business model that has sustained the media for the past few centuries is no more.

But as newspapers get rid of journalists, in their attempt to survive, we still need accurate reporting and informed analysis: we are faced with fake news, Donald Trump’s United States, and the rise of racism and xenophobia.

Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? is an ambitious attempt to explore the issues. Its five editors, each taking one of the book's five sections, have commissioned 50 contributors – a number that means the standard can be uneven. Some go off on tangents; some simply write, nostalgically, of the decline of print rather than journalism. (And some contributions have been published elsewhere.)

But the contributors are an interesting and impressive lot, a mix of industry professionals, from editorial, advertising, management, marketing and academe, although even here the academics are mainly former journalists. Many of the essays are compelling, and it is obvious the authors have thought deeply about the future of newspapers and journalism.


What are probably the most interesting chapters are the cases studies: Peter Cole on the Guardian, which adopted an open-access model, on the basis that news online should be free, but has now launched a paid-for membership scheme; Paul Lashmar on the London Independent and the decision to close its print edition and go online only; Doug Willis on the decision of the London Evening Standard to become a free paper; and John Ridding, chief executive of the Financial Times, on how his newspaper has succeeded, so far.

At a time of limited information and limited time, newspapers provide a valuable service of selection and judgement for readers

Ridding offers a reason why at least some newspapers have held up: “At a time of limited information and limited time, they provide a valuable service of selection and judgement for readers and an informed hierarchy of importance.” He suggests that is why they are such an attractive format for advertisers, “with tactile and visual appeal, part of the reason why luxury advertising has held up so well”.

One might say it's okay for the Financial Times, with its wealthy niche audience, but Ridding suggests it is a case of what editorial material suits what platform, arguing that value-added reporting and analysis, through either exclusivity or judgment, are the preserves of print, with breaking news made for the web.

The picture that emerges is one of news consumers using a mix of platforms: a digital summary over breakfast, a newspaper over coffee or at the weekend, news on a desktop in the office, email alerts and video when on a mobile device.

The other factor is Facebook and Google, which are sucking up digital advertising. That should be forcing legacy media to look at other income streams, especially the cover prices and display advertising that neither Facebook nor Google can touch.

A number of business models are referred to: funding for journalism from foundations or not-for-profit organisations, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; trusts; or publications funded with community support.

Irish audiences are not abandoning journalism but migrating from print to digital. That said, digital revenue is still small compared to that from print

In an essay on Ireland in the international section, Kathryn Hayes of the University of Limerick, and Tom Felle, of City, University of London, are cautiously upbeat. Irish audiences are not abandoning journalism but migrating from print to digital. That said, although digital platforms are showing impressive growth, the revenue they generate is still small compared with that from print. “It is not that news has suddenly become unfashionable, it’s that making money out of news is proving increasingly difficult,” they say.

There are no conclusions, and no essay drawing the arguments together, but if one were to suggest a thread common to all 50 essays it might be that audiences will respond to good journalism and that where there are successes it is because of investment in journalism – although one contributor does suggest that local newspapers could rely on volunteers, with a few paid journalists commissioning and editing.

Increasingly, however, what the public is getting, especially in Britain’s local newspapers, are rehashed press releases produced by fewer low-paid journalists, while important stories in the courts, local government and other agencies are ignored, affecting civic engagement and democratic control.

Despite all the graphs and statistics showing declining sales and falling revenue, there appear to be some reasons for optimism. Society needs good journalism, and the public clearly wants it. In some cases newspaper companies are doing well. Maybe a model is emerging where people will pay for good, challenging and even entertaining journalism on a range of platforms. That cannot be based on clearing newsrooms of journalists. Instead it must come from enhancing editorial, by investing in journalism, so that the audience, if asked to pay, is getting value for its money.

Michael Foley is professor emeritus of journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology