The end of a half century habit

There’s a lot been written over the past decade about the death of newspapers, often with the blame attributed to the web and specifically Google and, here in the UK, the BBC.  I hesitate to venture into this territory given there are many people who know more than I do about the subject, and also my role in a business with some adjacency to the sector. But I am going to anyway.

Recently my dad was explaining to me why, at the age of 76, he’s stopped buying newspapers. Not one specific newspaper, but all.  His most recent daily was the Daily Telegraph, but he’s bought the Times, Guardian and local newspapers too – a half century habit.   Since he retired over 15 years ago, his morning routine has always been a brisk walk around the local park and fields, stopping on the way back to pick up a paper before returning home for breakfast.    We’re talking about a deeply-ingrained habit of buying newspapers.

Why have my parents stopped buying newspapers? They don’t get their news online – that’s for email and Facebook and family photos. They have always watched the TV news – that hasn’t changed. It’s purely and simply down to quality.

As far as my dad is concerned, there’s nothing to read in there any more – the meaty reporting and genuine news has declined so much in recent years. Not in one newspaper, but across the board.   He described how he’d open the Telegraph and get through it so quickly his tea hadn’t even cooled down – spending more time turning the pages than reading them – never finding anything worth stopping to read.

After finally getting fed up with the Telegraph, he spent 15 minutes in the newsagents, looking through the whole selection of dailies for an alternative – from the Express to the Guardian to the Star. He couldn’t find a single paper with anything interesting to say.

What is it that he’s looking for? National and international news about politics, the economy and wars – facts, insights and informed opinion. Shock-jock columnists are a big turn off.  Local news is a big plus.

So, what about local papers? My parents stopped having the evening Sheffield Star delivered some years ago – again, they just stopped reading it when it was delivered – there was no meat on the bones. On the rare occasion they have bought it in recent years, they bemoaned that it had moved from evening to morning production – so the news is stale by the time the paper’s out.

My dad relayed a story about a sports editor on a prominent local paper who lives locally (anonymous here only because I’ve not checked directly with him), who’s moved jobs. His old role was, essentially, creating and curating local sports content just for his paper.  His new role is in a centralised production hub, where he cuts and pastes syndicated content to fill the pages of multiple papers across the region. Apparently he likes his new job – but it’s not hard to see how the loyal local readers can spot the difference in quality.

To me, perhaps naively, these fantastic news brands are still making the most basic of errors – focusing on the media (“we have X pages to fill”) rather than the content (“we have X news to communicate”).  It’s got to be substance over form.  It reminds me of the bulking agents used in processed food – filler content in newspapers makes it bigger, it doesn’t make it better.

Cutting costs by cutting the quality of the product by cutting journalism standards might seem a logical approach to managed decline – but it’s based on an arrogant assumption that consumers are less than discerning about what they read.

I had a little involvement with the FT some years ago – and was impressed by how much they focus on the quality of their news content – the substance – rather than the form.  A little ironic, given the pink paper of the FT is probably the most distinctive form on the news-stand.

The FT’s not a special case – the lesson I took away from my dad’s story was that quality content matters for every size and hue of news brand – and that even the most loyal readers won’t put up with weak content for long.

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