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Panel presentation to the Scottish Press Awards’ Conference 2014. Delivered at the Radisson BLU, Glasgow, 24 April 2014

Professor Philip Schlesinger



Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s a great honour to speak at this inaugural conference. I’d like to thank John McLellan for his kind invitation to join this panel. He’s asked me to reflect on the changing media and communications landscape. Given seven minutes to talk, the best I can do is to focus on a few highlights.

So, I’d like to say a few words about challenges to the industry at present and about some of our current research relating to this. I’d also like to offer a few broad reflections about the democratic role of the Scottish press as we head to the referendum.

You should know that many academics and students are very interested in the challenges you face. Practical dilemmas are being aired and discussed in our Masters in Media Management at the University of Glasgow – where we regularly engage with figures from the media (including one or two of the senior executives gathered here today) as well as the cultural industries and the policy community.

It’s a truism in this company to say that the digital revolution has thrown tremendous hurdles in the way of media businesses. Professor Gillian Doyle and I have been undertaking research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. We’ve been interested in analyzing how media organisations respond to the digital challenge and have been investigating cases in the press, magazines and television.

So far as the press goes, in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK and internationally, everyone knows that there’s been a decline in paid-for print sales and circulation; that competition with online platforms for paying customers has become increasingly intense and will continue to be so; that reader consumption patterns are changing and will continue to change.

A recent Reuters Institute study has shown there’s an increasing divergence in how news is consumed across generations, with younger, digital natives moving in large numbers to mobile devices such as tablets, as well as using social media, to access news content. That said, the use of mobile devices is increasing across generations – and the major sale of tablets this year and continued uptake of smart phones underlines the growing importance of the mobile consumption of content.

Newspapers are still in the throes of what we might call an open-ended great transition. In such a volatile situation achieving a stable state for newspaper managements is simply out of the question.  Innovation and experimentation – or trial and error – is the name of the game and this takes the shape of devising different corporate strategies to monetize the value of content and to extend and exploit relationships with readers.

The best known are the absolute paywall; metered access; and open access. A wholesale shift to subscription as an index of reader or consumer loyalty has yet to arrive.

The question then is how these are permed with ancillary businesses and advertising revenues. Those are the key variables in play. There’s no self-evident sure-fire formula.

We’ve been talking to media managers about how the digital revolution is affecting their business models. I’ll say a few words about that.

Focusing just on the press for now, we’ve had tremendous cooperation from many media organisations, including the Financial Times Group and Telegraph Media Group, where we’ve spoken to key executives. FT Group is unique, given its premium content, which is addressed to economic and political elites.

Perhaps more there than anywhere else, there’s been an explicit drive to turn the FT into a networked business, explicitly thinking about subscription as a direct internet retail activity. Their ambition is to move from print to digital and to build reader communities through value added to content. We’ve encountered a well-developed view of how print, website, mobile platform and apps might now be combined. This has gone hand in hand with seeking a simplification of content and production routines.

The FT Group’s web first strategy has resulted in changes to the skill sets of its workforce – now there’s a 50:50 split between print and digital – and a challenge to the traditional newspaper production cycle and long-established shift patterns. The 24-hour news day is losing its meaning in the digital order.

But journalistic practice doesn’t just fall into line. Lionel Barber has called on his staff to ‘publish stories to meet peak viewing times on the web rather than old print deadlines’ – that’s because work patterns just don’t easily change.  Editorial practices, though, have adapted – with an agenda-setting editorial conference in the morning and one in the afternoon for reviewing web analytics.

Intelligent use of digital data has allowed the FT to bypass intermediaries, be more precise in its feedback to advertisers and to use data-driven marketing techniques to increase its conversion rate (from browser to subscriber).  But web analytics also pose new challenges to conventional news judgments. Is what trends today, what really matters? All of this, I’m sure, will ring bells for those of you who are grappling with these issues.

TMG have also been very helpful in talking to us. Murdoch Maclennan has spoken about making a transition to a digital business, across all platforms, with the newspaper as part of a multiplatform business. At TMG, web analytics are also key to understanding demand and as at the FT Group, a shift to digital distribution means ultimately reducing costs.

In a crowded market place what the Telegraph brand itself represents to the customer is key. You could say that is a general rule for what are sometimes called the legacy media. Newspapers are competing with aggregators, social media, and broadcasters. I think a legacy in the shape of a brand is an unquestionable advantage.

I can but touch on these instances of how strategies are being pursued in this long transitional period. Many more details are available in an article that Professor Doyle and I are about to publish in the academic journal, Journalism. We’ll put up a link on our website so that you can access it.

Let me conclude with a few points from another international study we’ve been engaged in, where we’ve been looking at the challenges faced by the Scottish press and the press in comparable small nations. One key point that emerged from discussions held at our Centre in recent months is that the constitutional question is really secondary to the fundamental issue of creating sustainable conditions for Scottish newspapers. While before devolution, the press was a pacemaker and political change a major story, despite the momentous choice that we face in September, that imperative has become secondary to the challenge of adaptation to economic and technological change.

Look around at nation-states and nations of similar scale to Scotland such as Catalonia, Denmark, Norway and Quebec and you find that everywhere there’s a comparable debate about how to establish new press business models.

Everywhere, in these instances, while recognizing that the press first and foremost needs to look to its commercial basis, it’s nonetheless the case that the press is seen as key to democracy.  And that hasn’t ceased to be important in Scotland either. That means that in some places – Denmark and Norway – subsidies for diversity of voice are seen as legitimate. In others, Catalonia and Quebec, digital strategies interconnect with the cultural purpose of sustaining distinct languages.

Finally, as you all know, if there’s one policy issue that is centre stage in Scotland, it’s not press regulation in the shape of McLeveson, which was rapidly interred last year.

Rather, it’s the future of public service broadcasting – and especially that of the BBC.  We can assume that the Scottish broadcasting landscape will change in some respects whatever the outcome of the referendum.  As we know, a Scottish Broadcasting Service is a central plank of Scottish Government policy. And it is the web presence of the PSB, whatever guise it might assume, that is likely to be of most interest to the newspaper industry. It will also be interesting to see how STV’s hyperlocal news and the launch of city TV in Edinburgh and Glasgow play out in the coming years.

My concluding word is that while the great transition is far from over, our research indicates that institutional journalism in the press is reinventing itself with still uncertain consequences. But reinvention is the name of the game.

Philip Schlesinger is Professor in Cultural Policy at the University of Glasgow