MEDIA: Is the newspaper industry really in such a bad way?

On the face of it I’ve had a distressing week. Day after day every second phone call has been from former colleagues at the Independent seeking advice - they have been made redundant and wonder what the future holds. My reaction has been to weigh up whether conditions are really as bad as employees of national newspapers believe and indeed, feel them to be. To my surprise, I’ve emerged less gloomy than I expected.

On the face of it I’ve had a distressing week. Day after day every

second phone call has been from former colleagues at the Independent

seeking advice - they have been made redundant and wonder what the

future holds. My reaction has been to weigh up whether conditions are

really as bad as employees of national newspapers believe and indeed,

feel them to be. To my surprise, I’ve emerged less gloomy than I

expected.



The Independent is shedding around 44 jobs, the Guardian and Observer

are seeking a raft of voluntary redundancies, a stream of journalists

have been ejected from the Sunday Express and the News International

titles are seeking to return to more modest staffing levels which

existed before the late-lamented Today closed last November. Meanwhile,

consultants have been called into the FT, to see how its middle-aged

flab can be checked.



There is downsizing of a sort taking place, and a lot of insecurity.

Overall newspaper sales are at best stagnant: on paper at least this is

a mature market as detractors recognise. But this is not the whole

picture. The staggering 45 to 50 per cent rise in newsprint which rocked

the industry last year and delivered the coup de grace to Today has come

to an end, and prices may start to modestly fall later this year.



The price war has which created such havoc is drawing to an end,

bringing relief to the broadsheets, although the Times is still

underpriced and pressing the Telegraph hard. Advertising is rising

faster than inflation: the Telegraph’s 1995 annual results, for example,

show classified revenue up by 22 per cent and overall ad revenue up

eight per cent year on year. And newspaper marketing departments become

sharper by the day. But conditions are extremely uneven. Certain groups

are prospering through editorial investment and initiatives such as

going on-line (the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, the Telegraph and the

News International titles) while the weakest struggle with losses that

don’t respond to treatment.



The Guardian Media Group is clearly distracted by the estimated pounds 8

million annual losses of the Observer, but I defy anyone to say that the

Guardian’s editorial quality has been affected so far: like the

Telegraph and Daily Mail it remains a paper packed with value.



In fact most papers have sharpened up considerably through the past two

years of intense competition, fighting with instant on-the-day features,

columnists and ideas as much with news. The Independent, alas, is having

a terrible time, ownership split between two companies, editorial

budgets half those of the Telegraph, and a destabilised, overworked

staff, now cowed by callous pruning.



Hard, I agree, to feel optimistic about it. But it is the exception,

rather than the rule.



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