FEATURE 

The first cut is the deepest - or is it?

Making economies in publishing houses is a path almost as well-worn as the Appian Way. Downsize, merge back office, squeeze suppliers, cut training budgets, axe travel, fold sections, transfer local sub-editors into regional “centres of excellence” (sic). But Allan Prosser wonders whether there is still plenty of water left in the well?

By Allan Prosser

I once worked with a successful evening paper editor who had a simple condition of employment. Don’t come into work without a news story.

So far, so unremarkable. Isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do? But he didn’t mean that. His demand extended beyond the newsroom, to everyone. Sales reps, tele-ads, van drivers, accounts clerks, secretaries, even the managing director. He would dart around the building, a little like Montgomery in the desert inspecting the Eighth Army, convening small groups and seeking out their contributions. Every little helps.

With a mathematical flourish uncharacteristic of editors of his era, he would explain to dissenters that his policy gave him a newsgathering team not of 80, but of 320. All local people who knew other local people. But just as important, it rammed home the point that the newspaper was an organic, information-gathering, enterprise in which everyone must play their part if it was to prosper. Had David Brent been invented in those days, he might have said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

My colleague’s newspaper sold 115,000 copies a day in a mid-ranking town and hinterland. Now? Less than 30,000 copies against a background of population growth. Of course, all the usual suspects are blamed with pursed lips and knowing looks for this attrition rate of 75% in less than three decades. Demographics, of course. Screen-based media? You bet. The collapse of reading as a social skill? Shorter attention spans? Both questionable arguments, but I will throw them in because they are often cited.

Over-centralisation?

But what about lack of relevance, and centralisation of power and decision-making? What weight do we give to them in a history of disconnection and dysfunction which long preceded this economic crisis, but which shows every sign of accelerating as we walk through the storm.

Many of the attempts to economise in recent years and currently have been based on reorganising process, shortening the production chain, or “two-touch” publishing as it has been more elegantly described. Nothing inherently wrong with that, although focusing on production efficiency hasn’t saved a number of other industries, with car manufacturing a topical case in point.

It’s the foot soldiers who have borne the brunt; the sub-editors who have to commute 50 miles to new “hubs” in Royston Vasey; the journalists and assistants who keep the plates spinning in their new multi-tasking roles. And while we are talking about centralising editorial production, why is it necessary in a connected world where the irresistible megatrend is moving increasingly towards home working? Instead of “best practice” and “state of the art”, the creation of super-hubs looks like another example of the one-beat-behind-the-band syndrome which has blighted newspapers for the past three decades.

Claire Enders, who has been banging the drum and running the numbers in support of those “supergroups” which want a relaxation of monopoly and cross-media laws, warned Parliament that half of all regional titles would close within five years, while circulation would decline by 8% over the same period (which must be an underestimate surely?).

The role of the MD

So, if we are serious about saving serious costs, let’s talk about bigger beasts than the much-disparaged sub-editor. Without coming over all Dick the Butcher from Henry VI ("the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"), answer me this. Just what is it that managing directors do in 2009? This may sound facetious, but I ask in a spirit of genuine enquiry.

I know what they used to do. “The role of the editor is to go to jail, and the job of the managing director is to visit him there”, an owner once told me. MDs were the locally accountable and visible representative of the newspaper with discretion about the strategic direction that the title pursued, control over its business policies, and a responsibility for driving profits. And ensuring that the publication both met the needs of its specific market and provided leadership within the community and staff.

That was then. These days they often fulfil the role of buffer zone between disenchanted staff and avaricious, or increasingly desperate, corporations and groups. Scope for strategic development and initiative? Almost none. Business discretion in the teeth of corporate directives? Highly limited. Leadership? Not in the company I know of where only the board chief executive at HQ is permitted to speak to the media.

In a centralised, top down, world (the form of governance, incidentally, which has caused most of the commercial and political chaos which now engulfs us) backed by technically sophisticated control systems, just how relevant is the role of the divisional or local or regional managing director? They’re not selling; they’re not writing. They’re not taking pictures or designing pages. What they should be doing is worrying. Simply keeping the scores on the doors is not a high ticket item. It is a luxury in an era which calls for the hair shirt and Spartan principles.

Already this year, we have had some news of departures of managing directors among the ranks of the helots. Some have left for what might be called “artistic differences”, while others have simply tired of being asked to do barmy things. But a limited number have been restructured out of existence and, given the potential for market conditions to deteriorate still further, there may be many more yet wandering out onto the blasted heath without the company car.

Which begs the question of who, or what, would fill that ostensible vacuum? The editor could be first among equals; the enterprise could be run in a collegiate fashion. Some years ago while working with Russian newspapers, I witnessed meetings where the editor and his commercial colleagues were called before a soviet of their fellow workers to justify the decisions made in that day’s paper. I remember thinking it was quaintly Stalinist at the time. Now, I feel it could be no worse or ineffective than the Anglo-American management techniques of the past decade. Those Russian papers are still in business by the way.

If the supposed basic incentive of capitalism is to reward beneficiaries for their achievements, then what are the savings which could be accrued when the undeserving, and increasingly uninfluential, pick up stupendous benefits for accomplishments yet to be recorded. When executive life is crammed with unearned largesse, who needs to master the risky business of real and lasting growth.

Creative destruction was the phrase coined by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, and it should start at the top.

And there are other cost-saving options as well...

* The shape of things to come. Broadsheet editors fretted for years over turning tabloid. Those of them who remain still do so. I know of one major publishing company which is so exercised about it that it maintains both a broadsheet and a tabloid version with the readers dividing their loyalties roughly between both.

Generally, tabloids have won that historic battle. But in some markets, it would be logical to take miniaturisation one step beyond, and move to A4 format. This would not only contain costs still further but would have the additional benefit of putting pressure on story lengths. Many publications aren’t experiencing problems of crowd control among advertisers and it would only be the innate conservatism of advertising staff that would handicap a more radical approach. Newspapers need to develop an aggressive, risk-taking, strategy if they are to survive. The alternative — as we have been seeing since the early 90s — is the publishing equivalent of Ling Chi, the death of the thousand cuts.

I recently worked with a large publishing enterprise which shared the compound worries of a high cost base, diminishing revenues and falling margins. Their production cycle was complex, expensive, and built for a bygone era. The solution for that company was a complete rationalisation of format, press time, and days of publication to allow for one continuous run with fewer necessary edition changes. Staff bemoaned the reduction in flexibility, the new deadlines, the change of habit. But the savings keep them in the game, and reinvesting part of those into the establishment of a subscription-based digital edition allows them at least the opportunity to stay in touch with far flung readers without punitive production costs.

* Cut the crap. Tired of hearing that news is a commodity? Me, too. The same could be said of baked beans, but I don’t see too many supermarkets giving them away for nothing. But the universality of news sources poses significant issues for resource allocation which should go on those areas of coverage which are unique, distinctive and not easily replicated. Churnalism is worthless. People aren’t going to pay for it. Even worse, they are reacting against it.

Who’s doing well in the credit crunch? Leaving aside the booming interest in sport in this Ashes summer and the crazy world of football, who would have thought that the luvvies of theatreland could up their game while the collective brains and resources of publishing have been thrashing around.

In the second quarter of the year, business in London’s theatres is up by 3% on last year (which was also a record for attendances), and for plays — which not that long ago were being described, like newspapers, as an endangered species — the figures have increased by an eyebrow-raising 29%.

Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, thinks he knows why this is: “People are looking for substance." But it’s more than that. It’s also a communal experience which offsets the impact of bent political leaders, tawdry “sleb” culture, junk TV and superficiality, all subjects of contemporary obsession by newspapers. Do you think the customers are trying to tell us something?

* Don’t sweat the small stuff. Watching the BBC and seeing proper news emerge from Iran via mobile phone and Twitter, I conceded that this was a rare occasion when those technologies added something important to the sum of human knowledge. Let us set aside for another occasion the threats posed by states, public relations companies and corporations subverting these channels for their own purposes — misinformation is a weapon of mass destruction according to Faithless — and worry instead about the amount of creative time we waste trying to exploit technology.

I don’t have an iPhone. They are supplied by O2, sponsors of Arsenal so I am a prisoner of conscience in this respect. I wouldn’t put money into their coffers in the same way that I wouldn’t have a red car. But I do observe the inordinate number of hours fellow journalists spend worrying about “apps”, blogs, and Twitter (rightly described by Rod Liddle as favoured by the ‘narcissistic middle-aged, and not the young,’ in a recent edition of the Spectator.)

Traditional publishers appear to make barely a penny piece from such gizmos and channels. Until they do, time is better spent worrying about content which improves the newspaper.

Cutting costs is the crudest approach to a crisis. Like the Battle of the Bulge, there can be outstanding gains in the first wave, but from then on it is attrition all the way. And in a newspaper world stuck on repeat, it’s likely that there’s much more to come.

Of course, we can choose to do none of these things, waiting like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale for the heavens to “look with an aspect more favourable.”

Don’t hold your breath.