'Do online newspapers have a future in a Digital Britain' - MTM London round-table session

 by Martin Belam, 22 May 2009

I mentioned yesterday that I went to a round table panel session this week hosted by MTM London. Entitled 'Do online newspapers have a future in a Digital Britain', it was held under the Chatham House Rule, which rather precludes me writing it up as fully as I normally would. Instead I've picked out some unattributed quotes from the evening... [1]

"People are cynical about single brands, and don't want to be spoon-fed"

The point was made that people are much more flirtatious in their use of news services. Online allowed users to graze across opinion pieces from several sources, and not just buy into the world view of the one publication they read. It was argued that it is was patronising to think that the general audience doesn't understand that both Paul Staines and a national newspaper have an agenda that they are trying to push through their selection of stories and headlines.

There was still a strong view around most of the room that with a large number of online sources, some non-mainstream sites could serve some audience needs some of the time, but that the big boys were still going to dominate the landscape.

"What is really happening in newspapers is a massive change management task - from short-hand to laptops to mobile phones with cameras"

I thought this was a great soundbite that neatly encapsulated the fact that our industry has been in a state of flux and change since...well...to be honest, always. I thought the Media Guardian's 25 year supplement was very informative this week in the way Peter Wilby described newspapers of the early eighties as drab, grey, comment-free zones.

"Google plus the Internet is a brilliant way to surf niches"

There was great deal of concern that the Intneret had narrowed consumer focus down to what they were actually interested in - "You only find what you look for with Google" was another quote. In most industries I think that would probably be viewed as efficiency.

Obviously we have a higher public service purpose in enabling a functioning democracy - which we have typically fulfilled by putting the political news next to the celebrity tittle-tattle. If you can just go straight for the tittle-tattle, where does that leave public service coverage of the political process?

Nevertheless I was slightly put in mind of the recent debate sparked by Adam Tinworth and picked up by Kevin Anderson about entitlement to audience.

"A lot of newspaper websites are very hard to navigate"

On this point I couldn't have agreed more, especially those that are still trying to structure them like print.

"Why is 3's 3G coverage so ropey in Central London"

Not a quote from the event, just anguish from me that, despite having 'strong' signal, I kept getting chucked off the Internet every 3 or 4 minutes by my 3 dongle as I tried to live-tweet the event. Truly, our children will laugh at our infrastructure and what we currently call 'mobile broadband' and 'always on access'.

"If we are all waiting to see who blinks first, the BBC isn't going to blink"

As an ex-BBC employee, I usually find comparisons between the BBC's entire web spend and newspaper spend on the web a case of apples ~= oranges. The entire budget isn't funding the BBC News website alone, and newspapers don't have to produce charter-bound educational content.

Nevertheless, in any debate about monetising news in the UK, the BBC is a huge obstacle to the rest of us. I totally agreed with the sentiment of the panelist who said: "It is very difficult to put the free genie back in the bottle, especially when you are sitting next to the BBC". Why pay for something that they are going to continue to give to you free-at-the-point-of-delivery?

From the point of view of future regulation, I think that most people in the room expected an incoming Conservative Government, and that most people seemed to agree that this would signal a relaxing of competition rules for local and regional media, and a tighter grip on the expansion of the BBC.

I believe the BBC should do less stuff, and it should do it better. However, when I hear the BBC Trust's decision over local video described as 'getting their tanks off our lawn', I think the jury is still out on exactly how well tended that ultra-local video lawn currently is...

"There are too many people in the media"

One of the most telling quotes during the presentation for me was "There are too many people in the media. You don't need 25 versions of the same story". There were some incredulous laughs in the audience at this assertion, but I personally think it was one of the more valid points. We know we face over-supply of news, and almost infinite supply of online advertising inventory, so where is the business logic in the infinite online re-purposing of press releases and agency copy?

"Everyone on the panel has digital in their job title"

I've obviously picked out some of the more contentious points of the debate where analogue media business practices were clashing with digital media attitudes. Indeed, I suspect I'm acting like one of the 'Digital Hezbollah' mentioned in the introduction to the evening.

There was some very impressive speakers on the panel, and the majority of them shared a general mood of cautious optimism in the panel - which is usually my default position about the industry. It is facing some intriguing challenges, but I believe they are exactly that - intriguing - and not terminal.

I thought it was all summed up very well by one contribution. They pointed out that all of the mainstream media representatives on the panel had 'digital' in their job titles. The final question was to predict the shape of the news market in 2015, and the best answer was that if everybody did their jobs properly, they wouldn't have 'digital' in those titles anymore - they would be fully integrated with their business.

And finally...

Perhaps the oddest bit of the evening was that I managed to overcome my customary shyness about speaking in public, and chip in with some observations from the floor. Blogging about what I said would probably break the Chatham House Rule I guess, so all I can do is go on and write an entirely separate blog post on the topic...

Read more of my articles about notes and quotes from media and web events and the future of news

[1] Incidentally, anybody who thinks that bloggers can't exercise a code of ethics should probably have stopped reading at that point. It would only ruin your generalised stereotype [Return to article]

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