Alexander Chancellor

Alexander Chancellor: Do you think you should read this piece for free?

If young people want to join the media, they must figure out how to make online sites more profitable

Alexander Chancellor: Do you think you should read this piece for free?
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I was in Nottingham last Sunday to address university students about journalism. The occasion was a one-day ‘media conference’ organised by the Nottingham University students’ magazine, Impact, for the purpose of encouraging students to embark on journalistic careers. The conference, it promised, would give them a ‘kick start’ in this direction. I hadn’t realised until I got there that this was the intention, for I had planned to say how it was now almost as bad an idea for a young person to try to go into journalism as it had been, in Noël Coward’s song, for Mrs Worthington to put her daughter on the stage. I decided to tone down my remarks a bit when I saw how warmly many of the students cherished this ambition and how they clutched at every encouraging piece of advice offered them by other visiting speakers. When, for example, Paul Radford, a former sports editor of Reuters, told them that there might be opportunities for one or two of them to help with the coverage of next year’s Winter Olympics at Sochi in Russia, he was almost mobbed by a dozen or so would-be applicants.

I didn’t want to be a wet blanket, to say anything that might dampen their youthful enthusiasm; but all the same I couldn’t conceal my gloom about the present condition of the fourth estate. Where were the new jobs going to be when every news organisation in the country seemed to be getting rid of people instead of hiring them? What was the future of newspapers going to be when they were losing circulation at an ever-accelerating rate? I felt obliged to point out there wasn’t a single national newspaper that hadn’t lost circulation during the past year — the Daily Telegraph by 4.75 per cent, for example; the Guardian by nearly 10 per cent, the Sun by more than 12 per cent, the Financial Times by nearly 14.5 per cent, and the Independent by a staggering 20 per cent, leaving it with a poignantly low circulation of around 69,000. The Times did best, having experienced a decline of less than 1 per cent; but then its circulation now, which is around 400,000, is under half what it was only 13 years ago. I think it was the editor of this magazine who pointed out in a recent blog that if the Guardian — down now to under 190,000 from 494,000 in 1987 — continued to decline at its current rate it would have only one reader left by the end of the next decade.

All newspapers have websites, of course, and the Guardian’s online edition is, by contrast, hugely successful, with 84 million unique visitors each month. But nobody seems to have the faintest idea how to get people to pay for news on the internet. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, has reportedly been predicting that there might be a ‘paperless’ Guardian in five to ten years’ time. Maybe by then it will somehow be profitable. But Peter Preston, Rusbridger’s predecessor in the job, has written that the advertising revenue currently generated by the Guardian’s website is only one eighth or so of the nearly £40 million annual losses incurred by its print and online editions.

Earlier this year, an international conference of prominent journalists, broadcasters, digital experts and news organisation managers, meeting at Ditchley Park to debate the question ‘Is serious journalism still possible?’, concluded that there was still a huge demand for this ill-defined product, but no known way of selling it at a profit. They could suggest nothing better than ‘relentless experimentation’ in the search for successful ‘business models’, feebly expressing faith that where demand existed, supply would somehow follow. In the meantime, who was going to train journalists in their work, and who was going to pay for the in-depth investigations and permanent foreign bureaux that were essential to serious journalism?

Naturally, being old and nostalgic, I told these good students how much jollier journalism had been when the only people who practised it were the drunks of Fleet Street, and everyone else hung on their words; when readers knew their place and were content to get an occasional letter published in a newspaper; when there were no ‘citizen journalists’ to challenge the authority of us sozzled ‘professionals’. But I didn’t want to depress my audience, so I hope the editor will pardon me for having advised them that a good way into journalism was to offer The Spectator something for publication, provided it was unpretentious, clearly written and about anything genuinely interesting, which couldn’t be anything about themselves, their thoughts, their feelings, or how they spent their holidays.