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The media in an uncertain world

Digital technology is changing the direction of journalism but nobody in the traditional media business - not even those spending millions on digital technology - knows where it is going. Richard Tyler searches for signposts.

Does journalism have a future? Bunly Maes certainly hopes so. The 29-year-old Cambodian is just completing the final year of his Masters degree at City University London. His subject is Journalism and Media within Globalisation. His focus is business and finance journalism, a field that might be expected to be in demand. Like many trainee journalists he has one eye on the industry's uncertain future. However, he is optimistic. "We (in Cambodia) are going to have our own stock market at the end of the year. There's a big opportunity for business journal-ists," he said, adding: "We are declared democratic now but the financial and security pressures are still there on journalists. The good choice for local journalists is to work for foreign media." The problem is that the foreign media organisations that many Cambodian journalists may turn to for employment and training are themselves working out what their future holds.

Business models that have served them well for decades have been holed beneath the waterline by the shift in advertising, readers and viewers to news, sport and business websites. Boardroom tables are covered with papers setting out the options: it could be charging for online articles and videos or perhaps offering free access to website content supported by advertising. No traditional media business has yet cracked it. The issue played a part in the departure of William Lewis, the Editor-in-Chief of Telegraph Media Group, in May. Mr Lewis, who had just won the Journalist of the Year award for the Telegraph's coverage of the Westminster expenses scandal, resigned after a disagreement with Chief Executive Murdoch MacLennan over the company's digital publishing strategy. It makes the decision of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch to erect a paywall around the words, pictures and videos on The Times and The Sunday Times websites in June all the more fascinating. It could be the most significant step yet for the traditional media's search for a viable business model. Rival UK publishers such as the Guardian Media Group and the Telegraph Media Group have said they are observing the move. Industry observers suspect that the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), which owns the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday could follow suit. Other newspapers and magazines operate free or hybrid charging models. DMGT's free morning paper, the Metro, is one model. Pearson's Financial Times and The Economist provide some free stories but restrict access to other "premium" articles to subscribers. The Times' move is seen as more daring, given that readers will have to pay for access to anything.

High-risk strategy
One person keeping a close eye on proceedings is George Brock, Head of Journalism at City University London and former International Editor of The Times. Professor Brock said News International's move was striking in a number of respects. "One is that the paywall is going around all of the editorial content. That's extraordinarily high risk," he said. "If you look at the business publications that are trying to charge for their content - The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist - many of their readers either subscribe to help their careers or their subscriptions are paid by their employer, or both. Taking these two important factors into account, these three publications are still operating a hybrid model: part free, part paid." Another striking aspect of the move is the "very low" starting price, he said. Pricing for access to thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk when this article went to press was £1 a day or £2 a week. Professor Brock thinks this should see a five to 10 per cent conversion rate of the existing online readership, but it will not make the company enough money to cover the lost advertising revenue. "You have to assume they will try to take the price up, having captured a group of willing subscribers. To do that you have to raise the quality of the content each time. I am a bit pessimistic about it because it is a very tough trick to pull off," said Professor Brock. He adds, however, that The Times' paywall is only one in a series of experiments within the News Corporation group of companies. The Times' "extreme paywall at a low price" is at one end; the WSJ is a hybrid model, while Sky News online is pursuing a free, advertising-driven model.

Spectrum of experiment
"It suggests to me that all these policies, if you lump them together, are a spectrum of experiment. Rupert (Murdoch), has no more idea than anyone else what will work… or at least has no idea until he knows much more." Broadcasters face similar challenges. Viewing habits are changing and advertising is following consumers online as broadband speeds improve to allow television over the internet. Broadcasters have responded with innovations such as television-on-demand services. But here they face added competitive pressures from the BBC, with its licence fee but free-at-the-point-of-consumption funding model. James Murdoch, Chief Executive of the European and Asian operations of News Corporation and former Chief Executive of Sky, the satellite broadcaster, used the James McTaggart memorial lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2009 to warn that the "chilling" expansionism of the BBC meant that commercial rivals were struggling and consumer choice was being diminished. News Corp and Sky are not alone in facing pressure from the BBC. ITN's rolling news channel fell victim to the BBC's investment in its News 24. Outside the traditional groups, entrepreneurs are sensing opportunities. One example is Demand Media in the US, which operates through a vast array of popular, community-based websites such as eHow.com for how-to tips and the sports site Golflink. One of the company's tactics is to track online consumer search terms in real time to find out what people are looking for and commission writers to create relevant content to meet that immediate need. So successful are the company's products that traditional media companies are now paying it to help them engage better with their audiences. In Britain, ITV are using one of Demand Media's social media products to improve its online audience figures for This Morning. At the same time, consumer news and entertainment habits are changing and the advertisers that once supported traditional broadcast and print media are shifting their spending online to follow them. Elise Dupaty, Head of Advertising Operations for Paris-based Hi-Media - which counts The Independent among its customers - said: "I think there's a general evolution rather than a revolution." Ms Dupaty, who is studying for an Executive MBA at Cass, believes that mobile phone advertising in particular is about to come of age. She says: "We have been talking about it forever but, as of this year or next, advertisers will buy into it." With advertisers examining what combination of print, broadcast, mobile and online exposure works best for them, Professor Brock thinks that the traditional media has not been bold enough. "Like most industries which were very well established, the media business in general - not just newspapers, the same could be said about terrestrial TV - has been thinking in very conservative terms about what business models could emerge as people adjust to digital technologies." Over the past 200 years the media have faced down a series of technological breakthroughs that have led to seismic shifts in the industry. However, it has not been a smooth process. "When one business model starts to decline, another does not just roll out on schedule. The business model for radio did not start when radio began. There was a gap," said Professor Brock.

Groping for sustainability
He believes that the media is now in one of those transitory phases. He said: "In the long term I am optimistic about journalism. In the short term, a lot of experimentation will take place and most experiments will fail. Journalism students have been aware of this. There is liable to be a stage where the industry is groping around to make journalism sustainable. I think that at a minimum the phase of experimentation will last two to three years, and it could last for quite a bit longer than that."
Professor Brock's "transitory phase" is prompting talented journalists to reconsider their careers. James Blake, 36, the main reporter on Channel 4's News at Noon before joining the channel's evening news programme, volunteered for redundancy last autumn and is now a lecturer in broadcast and online journalism at Edinburgh Napier University. Mr Blake, an investigative journalist with an award-winning Dispatches documentary, Judges in the Dock, under his belt, said: "A lot of people left around the time that More 4 News and News at Noon were axed. For me, it was a mixture of personal circumstances, the need for new challenges and time to pursue them." Napier had recently recruited a handful of senior industry professionals, Mr Blake said, to make sure its journalism training was industry led. Lecturers were encouraged to retain their working links with the industry. "I could be in quite a good position to freelance - to go into areas that I have always been interested in, but have not had the time and energy to do, like documentaries. I think people will rely more and more on freelance journalists as staff numbers reduce."

Subsidised investigations

It is a dynamic that City University London has also seen. A £2 million donation by the David and Elaine Potter Foundation has enabled the University to host the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to conduct public interest investigations to be sold to newspapers and magazines. Professor Brock said: "Investi-gative journalism is extremely important but it is extremely hard to do well, and it is expensive. Maybe this is the way that journalism is going. Maybe journalism needs corporate benefactors to survive, at least in the near term." The media is not alone in having to cope with a demanding consumer base. At Cass Business School, Dr Caroline Wiertz, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, and Thorsten Hennig-Thurau, Research Professor of Marketing at Cass, are examining how marketing is changing in response to the way that consumers access information. "People trust marketing messages least, then the outside experts, but most trust peers and friends," Dr Wiertz said. The giant social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have inspired large, meticulously planned online marketing campaigns designed to appeal to people so much that they recommend the film clip, website or product to others. The researchers are studying how reviews of new films that are spread in this way over an opening weekend could affect whether a film makes or loses money. In the past, print and broadcast film reviews have spread relatively slowly, but instant word-of-mouth via status updating on Twitter or Facebook could be changing the nature of the game and have a huge impact on how much money the opening weekend brings in.

Richard Tyler is the Enterprise Editor for The Daily Telegraph.

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