The Biggest Threat to Newspapers is the Current Ownership Model

10:10 Tuesday 17th April 2012
Andy Harper Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY HARPER: We’re talking about local newspapers, after the proposed changes to the Evening Telegraph in Peterborough, no longer a daily paper at the end of next month, but will become a weekly. But there will be various ways of looking at it on-line. .. Let’s talk now to Barry Fitzpatrick, Deputy General Secretary of the NUJ. Barry, good morning to you.
ANDY HARPER: Well I’ll put my cards on the table. I’m a newspaper fanatic, and I regard this as sad news, but it’s the way of the world isn’t it?
BARRY FITZPATRICK: Well it is sad news, and there’s no doubt that things needed to be done. But it’s the pace of it, and what we think is already, as your earlier interview revealed, it’s not been properly researched, and the pace of it now is going to mean a lot of people are not going to keep up with it, and they’re going to lose some of their core readers. That’s our experience elsewhere, where this programme is being imposed. And what we’re urgently seeking with Johnston Press are serious talks about the research that’s gone into this, and how it’s going to affect the future viability of the papers and the quality of the content.
ANDY HARPER: Because that’s the point, isn’t it? It isn’t just the Evening Telegraph in Peterborough.  It’s other newspapers in the group as well. So it’s quite a few jobs really.
BARRY FITZPATRICK: Well it’s quite a few jobs, and they’ve said over the course of the next nine months they intend pretty much to move all of their daily papers to weeklies. It’s not yet clear about the Yorkshire Post, or the Portsmouth titles, but most of the regional press that they own, they are planning to put onto this system, by the end of the year.
ANDY HARPER: Barry, what is the biggest threat to newspapers? Is it the fact that it’s declining sales, the cost of newsprint, drops in advertising? There must be something to explain all of this.
BARRY FITZPATRICK: Well, I would say the biggest threat to newspapers is the current ownership model frankly, in which pretty much all of the major groups now have large debts, which they’ve built up over the recent five years, and as is a familiar story, they’ve not put anything by for a rainy day, when they were making huge profits, up to 30%. Now, some of those profits are still there, but in the case of Johnston Press, they’re servicing a massive debt mountain, and most of the revenue they get is paid off against the interest, which leaves very little for the investment in journalism. Now clearly other factors play a part as well. What you’ve said about newsprint costs, the cover price is important, I was interested in the earlier piece I heard about the i. We have for a long time felt that you could not go on driving up the cover price without sacrificing circulation. That’s certainly the case in the middle of the recession. And again, it’s something which I believe the new title they’re launching, the weekly, that will be at an increased price.
ANDY HARPER: Yes. So how many people will go out and pay even more.
BARRY FITZPATRICK: Pay even more for a once a week title.
BARRY FITZPATRICK: And from the experience we’ve had in Northampton and elsewhere as we’re gathering the information, it’s clear that an awfully large section of their current readership .. I don’t mean this disparagingly .. as the earlier interviewee said on the Talking Newspaper, a lot of older people who will not have access to apps, don’t use them at all, will simply stop reading the paper.
ANDY HARPER: And that’s what we’ve heard this morning from people who said, look, we don’t have computers, we don’t have this ability, but we buy a paper all the time. The paper-buying public are still people of my generation, not the younger generation.
BARRY FITZPATRICK: Absolutely. Our generation. (THEY LAUGH)
ANDY HARPER: Just finally Barry, journalism is your business, and it’s worth pointing out isn’t it that the top journalists of today were once upon a time the local newspaper journalists of yesterday. And it’s the same in broadcasting. So many people who I see on the national news now I worked with when they made their way up through local radio. And so this breeding ground of journalists who then become national and international stars, won’t happen.
BARRY FITZPATRICK: It will not. And the other concern we have is that journalism is becoming desk-bound, which we’re not saying isn’t a part of what modern journalism is about, but it’s essential that people have feet on the ground, and they go out amongst the communities, meet and establish relationships, and get stories and comment on what’s going on. And again, we think that’s being put at risk, especially if the head count is reduced to the point where frankly there’s not enough staff to provide what they want to give,
ANDY HARPER: Barry, it’s been a delight to talk to you. Thanks very much. I know you’re very busy. thank you for joining us.
BARRY FITZPATRICK: Thank you. No worries.
ANDY HARPER: Cheers. That’s Barry Fitzpatrick, who is Deputy General Secretary of the NUJ.