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25 February 2016

We Need a Campaign for Real News

The Watney's Party Seven was an icon of my adolescence. In the long, hot summer of 1976 just about every weekend meant an 18th birthday party .. parties meant beer .. and the Party Seven was everywhere.

For those to whom this is an alien concept, let me explain. The Party Seven was a metal can containing seven pints of fizzy beer. I'm guessing that the original idea was to fit a gallon of booze into a single can, but maybe it kept imploding, or it was the wrong dimensions for the shelves, or something, so they just went with seven. This was, after all, the era of the Austin Allegro and the square steering wheel.

It was impossible to open. The beer was vile. It marked the nadir of brewing technology, and the beginning of a backlash. I believe there are analogies with journalism today.

Brewing, like news, enjoyed a century or more of stability before disruptive technology broke up an established network of local and regional suppliers, most of whom were profitable because, if nothing else, they held a local near-monopoly of an essential product.

In the beer industry that disruption came from kegs. Instead of wooden barrels and limited shelf life, the metal keg allowed beer to be shipped hundreds of miles and it could be stored, if not indefinitely, at least for longer. Add some canny marketing and the local suppliers were elbowed aside by hordes thirsty for Younger's Tartan, Whitbread Trophy Bitter ("The pint that thinks it's a quart") and Watney's Red Barrel.

If you couldn't get to the pub, there was the Party Seven at home.

Amid all the excitement some drinkers remarked that the new fizzy brews didn't taste of very much, and, quietly at first, a Campaign for Real Ale started that nurtured and promoted the traditional qualities of beer making.

The Campaign gathered pace and ultimately led to the situation we have today.  There are now many craft breweries providing an alternative to the mass market brands, and many of these are profitable. Old and new tech has established an equilibrium in the market, and as consumers we all benefit from the choice available.

So, the parallels for news. Let me rewind a bit.

News, like brewing, enjoyed a century or more of stability before disruptive technology broke up an established network of local and regional suppliers, most of whom were profitable because, if nothing else, they held a local near-monopoly of an essential product. 

The disruptive technology in this case was the Internet, and at first, just like the tidal wave of Skol, online news caused havoc to the business models of traditional local media. Starved of income, many regional titles went to the wall or became zombie versions of themselves.

Now, I believe, readers are beginning to notice that the news ... doesn't taste of very much. There's a limit to how many fizzy listicles we can swallow before we experience uncomfortable bloating, and our news lacks local distinctiveness, becoming increasingly bland and online-uniform.

Another problem has been the lack of innovation in print newsrooms. The bright young things have been working on ideas for the website rather than invigorating the legacy product, and any new investment is focused on the online and mobile strategies.

Print, after all, is dead. Worthington E reigns supreme. There are however ... anomolies.

Private Eye, the fortnightly satirical magazine with a sixties retro page layout and a perfunctory apology for a website has reached record circulation figures.

A different eye .. the i, all modishly lower case ..  an innovative attempt at making print attractive to a younger demographic, is being sold off to Johnston Press as part of the restructuring that killed the Independent as a print title.

In Leeds, the patch I work in, both hyperlocal news websites like the West Leeds Dispatch or South Leeds Life and lifestyle-based online products like The City Talking have launched hard copy print editions (the latter with a deal to distribute it with the Yorkshire Evening Post) which are proving popular.

So I think the time is ripe for a Campaign for Real News to champion the case for local and regional newspapers of record to reinvent themselves and offer a satisfying product for a new generation. Put similar effort to that devoted to web innovation into changing the way the print product looks and feels.

The New Day could offer this at a national level - a new title from Johnston Press (again) that promises to do away with the sensationalism and (above all) party political point-scoring of other national print titles. It launches on Monday and I wish it well.

Keg beer is here to stay. If I go into the nearby student bar there are four taps offering golden fizz chilled to extinction. Online news providers will continue to thrive. Someone wants to know This Simple Trick, and Won't Believe What Happens Next.

But I'd like to think analogue and digital products can exist side by side, like the lager taps and ale pumps in my favourite local, and that we can all benefit as news consumers as a result.


  1. If this article had appeared in print, I wouldn't have read it, as I don't buy newspapers. About the only occasions I read print media are if there's a free copy of the Metro lying on a train seat, or a two day old newspaper in a waiting room and I have no phone reception.

    The beer analogy is fun, but could be extended in different ways. Like microbrewery products, blogs have distinctive flavours. Not necessarily offering full-on news services, blogs specialising in narrowly focussed areas can offer part of the smorgasbord online consumers put together for themselves daily. My own blog offers unorthodox views on climate science, energy policy and astrophysics.

    1. Fair enough, I'm not suggesting everyone should buy a paper any more than I would seek to influence your personal choice at the bar.

      The beer analogy was prompted by talking with first year undergraduates who tell me "all news is the same" and it's "boring" - as indeed it can be, if I follow the links on my smartphone I get twenty news organisations all telling me (for example) that the Flying Scotsman will make/is making/has made a run from Kings Cross to York. I need to read a paper to get much more depth and research than that.

      I really believe we have "been there, done that" now with the idea of quick fix clicks. We have created the Party Seven.

      The reaction to that, as in the current enthusiasm for vinyl music, could be - maybe - audiences rediscover the qualities of a print product.

      The enthusiasm of readers picking up print editions of the West Leeds Dispatch and South Leeds Life would tend to suggest that if the content is right (relevant) the demand is there.

      New incarnations of the "i" and The New Day will show if this new appetite for print exists on a national scale.

  2. Well a good article is a good article whether it's on-page or on-line. The mainstream newspaper websites are struggling with finding a model that covers costs, for several reasons.

    People have got used to a culture of free online content, and are reluctant to pay a subscription.

    There is competition from blogs which offer in-depth articles which don't just offer the establishment or usual partisan points of view.

    People like the portability of online news. They can put together their daily feeds from a number of specialised sources without having to carry three papers and four magazines in a briefcase or backpack. Half the weight is advertising copy too...

    I think the future is digital. The question is how the writers can get paid. I get donations to my blog from time to time, but it's nothing like enough to make a living at it.

  3. Another big factor is immediacy of feedback. People like being able to comment on article and see/argue with what others say about it. This offers a more immersive experience and gives people the opportunity to 'have their say' rather than be treated as passive consumers of media output.

    The BBC is notoriously bad at allowing people a say. They'll open a comment thread for some trivial sports story, but you won't get the opportunity to 'have your say' on the big issues of the day.

  4. Agree that online has some benefits, which you outline.

    My key point is that so much online material is repetitive, devoid of local relevance and insubstantial. We are beginning to tire of such a diet.

    Those print publications which are emerging or thriving in niches either serve a local need (hyperlocal hard copy editions) or deliver original journalism (Private Eye).

    My hope is the local prnt media can make themselves distinctive and relevant as outlined in the OP. The Yorkshire Post is making a good stab at it this weekend with the "Cameron love letter" tale.

    But I'm not trying to eliminate the Internet or stop you enjoying a pint of Foster's if that's your choice.

  5. I'll buy you (and me) a pint of decent local craft beer any time Richard. Good to see the Yorkshire Post criticising Cameron for his near-identical missives to the regions.