Bob Satchwell on Old Media, New Media and the Spread of the Metro

17:19 Friday 12th November 2010
Drivetime BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY GALL: Local newspapers could lose out following an announcement by the London freesheet The Metro to hand out fifty thousand extra copies of its daily paper to commuters travelling from the region. People from Cambridge, Peterborough, Ipswich and Bedford will be among those able to read the paper. Bob Satchwell is the Director of the Society of Editors and former editor of the Cambridge Evening News, and we should be able to speak to him now. Good afternoon Bob.

BOB SATCHWELL: Good afternoon.
AG: So if you were the Cambridge News editor now, would you be sucking a thoughtful tooth?
BS: Well I don’t think so. I believe that the whole of the media thrives on any kind of competition. I always like the idea of new things happening. You should see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. I know that’s a cliche, but the media and particularly local newspapers like the Cambridge Evening News, if they are to succeed, they have to be resilient, they have to be innovative, and they have to be ready to take on anything. And I think there’s a different message coming from a paper which is basically a national paper, and one which is local. Local papers will still succeed, so long as they provide the local news that people want to read, because they’ll only get it from that source.
AG: We always hear that there’s a gradual drop-off in readership for newspapers. Is that the case?
BS: Well the answer to that is I don’t know. And I know that sounds silly, but what I do know is that circulations may be going down, but readership may in fact be going up. It’s certainly not going down as fast as circulation. Because of course people buy papers, buy the news, or get the news, in all sorts of different ways these days. They get it on their mobiles, they get it on their internet screens, they get it on all sorts of platforms which, when I was editing the Cambridge Evening News, we hadn’t even heard of. And in fact more people are probably consuming news now in one form or another than ever in history. News is still big business. There is still life in newspapers. There’s still life in those which keep innovating and finding new ways of delivering the news.
AG: And I believe there’s a tasty coin in consultants who can discuss the way that the public sample their media, isn’t there?
BS: Well I’m sure there is. And one of these days I’ll perhaps make one of those coins.
AG: You and I. Come on! (LAUGHTER)
BS: In the meantime, I’m about to dash off up to Glasgow for our annual conference, when these kinds of issues are right at the forefront of editors’ minds at the moment. For instance, we’ve got Alexander Lebedev speaking, who is fighting for media freedom in Russia, and at the same time producing new kinds of papers in Britain. The Evening Standard in London is now free of course, and he’s just invented a new paper called i, which is a sort of cut-down version of the Independent. This is a sign which says that posh papers, serious papers, don’t have to be big, thick and long and expensive, and people will want to read them on the Tube, or on the bus, or on the train.
AG: Well that’s the thing. You’ve got a captive audience when you’re on the public transport. Our producer Catherine phoned a couple of local papers to see if they would chat to us about the Metro, and its tendrils spreading out even further, for a reaction. It’s fair to say that it was one of apprehension, not a surprising reaction in some people’s opinion, do you reckon?
BS: Well what I would say is this, that anyone in particularly local and regional papers, at the moment, are entitled to feel very battered. They’ve had a very very bad period, as everyone has, with the recession, because newspapers are a barometer of the economy. And we’re going through this huge structural change where people are changing their habits in getting their news, from the old-fashioned way of just newspapers, onto all these new platforms. And so editors particularly are feeling incredibly battered. And therefore there is a .. it’s a bit like the storm has gone through, and another one comes immediately afterwards. And you say, Oh God, not another one. But my advice to them is, and I know it’s easy for me to say, is just keep doing all those brilliant things you do. there’s so much which is great in the British media at the moment, particularly in local and regional newspapers. They do a terrific job. And as long as they keep doing that job, they will see off competition which doesn’t do the job which they do.
AG: It’s human nature though to run a nervous finger around your collar, when you hear that there’s a new taxi rank in town.
BS: Well of course it is, but as I say that’s the thing, if you use a sporting analogy, it gives you something to aim at. You always play better when you’re playing a better team, or you’re playing someone new that you don’t know quite what they’re about. You lift your game.
AG: The argument is, the cliche could be that the consumer will win out, because whatever happens, there’ll be a better level of journalism.
BS: Well I think that goes without saying. People take newspapers and the whole of the media for granted in this country. You talk about Alexander Lebedev in Russia. Russian journalists are being beaten up and killed to stop them bringing the news to people. In this country we take it all for granted, that we’ve got a free media. And it’s the best media in the world. I can tell you, you go to other countries and no-one has so much competitive, vibrant, fun, intelligent and interesting media, as people in this country. They’re very very lucky.
AG: It’s a funny relationship though with the printed press, isn’t it? There is a romance about the history of it, Fleet Street, and how it all came into being. And then you have the rhetoric where people say don’t believe everything you read in the paper. So our relationship with the printed media is a difficult one.
BS: Well it’s certainly ambivalent. Because for every person who says don’t believe what you read in the papers, I’ll go to the pub tonight at seven o’clock, and someone will start telling me something, and I’ll say, I don’t believe that, and they’ll say, you’ve got to believe it, because it was in the Daily Whatever, or it was on telly, or on the radio. And that’s the ambivalence. But the thing about this, particularly for local and regional papers, is that you have to remember that we’re all, human nature says we can be rudest about our closest friends, and indeed our family. And that’s how people look at their local paper, or the regional paper, like the Cambridge Evening News. It’s their friend. It’s a friend dropping in as it were. And they feel they have some ownership with it, they have a relationship with it, therefore they can be rude about it. But underneath they actually love it.
AG: I think to get dewy-eyed and romantic about local media in general, your local radio station, or your local newspaper, it’s almost become the metaphorical corner-shop, where people can meet and discuss things, as the corner-shop seems to have disappeared.
BS: And strangely that’s increasingly so now, particularly with new media. Because of all the social networking that comes out of it. Newspapers, even the smallest of newspapers have been particularly good at picking up on Twitter, and Facebook, and all that sort of thing. Making friends, and keeping the relationship going. I think it’s terrific, and I’m too old to keep up with it these days. (LAUGHTER)
AG: There comes a point where you say, I’m not prepared to learn a new medium.
BS: Well that’s when the danger comes. If you’re too afraid of something new coming in, which might seem like competition, that’s as bad as saying I’m too old to learn. You’re never too old to learn.
AG: Look at the great John Peel. He didn’t say this far and no further with music.
BS: What you should do is whenever something comes along, when a new bus comes along, get on it, and enjoy!
AG: Look at all these metaphors. We’ve had taxis, buses ..
BS: Once you are driven by cliches ..
AG: Once a raconteur, always a raconteur. Bob Satchwell, thank you very much for talking to us this afternoon.
BS: You’re welcome.
AG: That’s Bob, he’s the Director of the Society of Editors, and former editor of the Cambridge Evening News, or the Cambridge News as it is now, on the news that the Metro, the free London based newspaper, will be spreading its tendrils a little bit further out, to commuters travelling in our region.