Memo to Polly Toynbee: insulting the customers doesn’t work

Last thought on the Polly Toynbee/Guardian piece: At the end of it she says:

In the end, it’s up to you. If you always read this on the web, go out and buy a copy, skinflint. Use it or lose it.

How about this? Create the compelling content and people will come to you instead – give them a compelling and unique reason for looking at the print instead of the web. Don’t blame or insult the consumer, that’s never going to increase sales. And find decent ads that they may click on.

It seems to me that insults are rarely going to work. Like many others in the world of media she’s clinging to the old model – buying the paper – instead of looking to see what alternatives there may be.

Polly Toynbee on saving the media: turn back the clock, ask for government help

Polly Toynbee has written a piece over at The Guardian on how the death of local papers is a national emergency. It’s a decent piece going over some familiar ground but there’s a few flaws which I’ll address with Polly’s points in bold.

This jackal financial crisis picks off the weakest, so it’s no surprise newspapers are early fallers.

Newspapers aren’t the profit disasters that many assume them to be. The problem is that the owners are far too used to profits of 20-30% instead of leaner figures that make others happy. The second problem is that so many – especially Trinity Mirror – are beholden to large groups who are only chasing maximum profit and don’t actually have any belief or care in the product. (I was going to add that the likes of The Economist and New Scientist seem to be doing OK but you could argue that they are specialist magazines.)

Comment is free, but serious news journalism is phenomenally expensive – and the web has yet to find a way to generate funds to pay the true price.

To an extent that’s true for daily press – but for years many magazines survived by having quality journalism at their core – Rolling Stone for example. The problem with daily news is that it is seen as a disposable product and also news quality varies on a day by day basis. Perhaps the problem here was as much to do with news judgements and price competition?

The government talks piously of community engagement – and a newspaper with real journalism is the most vital local forum of all.

Totally agree, but there’s another aspect to this – how much do people actually care about what’s going in their area? I have friends and neighbours who literally use their homes as beds and shower places. They work long hours, get home and sleep. Get up in the morning and repeat. Others, just use their homes as places to change clothes before heading back out.

While I agree that local news is important, is it possible that newspapers have still to catch up with the concept of local not mattering as much as it used to for people – and the only local news that matters is what roads are open/closed and they get that from the radio?

Mention subsidy and the regulation that goes with it, and newspaper groups cry press freedom….Many never bother to cover council meetings, let alone key committees, when pensioner-scaring crime stories are cheap and PR handouts plentiful.

But crime is an important factor to many communities, especially inlight of what the Daily Record had today about the recession forcing crime up, causing a creditcrunch crime wave. And some PR handouts can be informative, I hasten to add.

Polly also has to be fair, most council meetings take place out of hours and when local journalism is as underpaid as it is, would you spend an evening in a council meeting – that even most readers probably won’t care about – or spend time with friends and family? The concept of ‘quality time’ has probably been as much of an impactor on journalism as anything else – after all, after being made redundant, “wanting to see my family” is the most common reason I hear for people leaving the the press. It’s certainly been a strong factor for me when I’ve been invited back to the cut-and-thrust. (that’s not to say I wouldn’t ever go back but the terms would have to be a lot more generous than they were a few years ago).

Polly then goes on to talk about how subsidies, BBC money and other income streams could be used to save the day but then dismisses local councils (who I think should actually lead the way in providing news to residents while Seth Goodin thinks it should be real estate firms) “Then oblige local councils to stop wasting money on their own Pravda sheets,” which seems to be missing the point – surely that’s the perfect place to provide a newspaper? And here’s the contradiction at the heart of Polly’s piece – she wants the Government to intervene but then stand back which basically means making the BBC model apply to press as well (which seems OK. I’ve been wondering if the licence fee should expand to include some printed press as well as everything else the BBC does).

But the question Polly isn’t asking is this: given how much a pain in the butt and pest the press can be in exposing certain activities, is it not more in the interests of some (not all, I stress) politicians at a UK/Westminster (and US/Washington) level to let the press die a death? The less there is reporting, the less they can be exposed for or criticised about (of course some politicans welcome the debate and Scotland over the last few years as been an incredibly open country, but not enough in my opinion).

Britain without the Mail or the Sun would be a happier place, less biliously nihilist, less miserable, angry and afraid. But democracy without the scrutiny of good journalism is unthinkable. In the end, it’s up to you. If you always read this on the web, go out and buy a copy, skinflint. Use it or lose it.

There’s an element of snobbery in this – and it also misses one rather important point: both The Sun and Mail have broken some incredible stories over the years. The profitabilty of The Sun has also probably helped shore up cash losses in other parts of News International’s UK press operations, notably The Times, allowing them to do their thing.

(her comments about what the country would be like also lead to the old argument of ‘do people get the press they want or does the press shape the people, but I’ll leave that for another day)

Her key argument of But democracy without the scrutiny of good journalism is unthinkable is fair enough but you can have that good journalism without print so she’s moved the goalposts a little.

I believe print should survive – to me, there’s still few things better than a well-designed newspaper page with exciting content (though the web is more convenient for me when on the move) – as there are still generations of people aged over 35 who aren’t fans of news by other methods. To that end, I believe the likes of Metro and Business7 at least have a decent chance of survival.

Anyway, go and read her piece – it’s sparked off a fair bit of debate with 155 comments there at the moment.