Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Internet Revolution

Don't get me wrong. I am not a technophobe. Never have been. In fact, I love computers. I use them daily in my job. I'm always on the internet. I use it to check train times, book flights and buy odds and ends, even car insurance! It's a useful tool, make no mistake, but, being a magazine journalist, I have to admit that I'm, well, a little scared – okay, not scared, but concerned – about the general vibe that 'journalism as we know it' is all but over. It is a view put across by those who, like born again Christians, suddenly decide that the internet is the big cure-all for everything and they feel they have to then 'spread the word' to the uninitiated.

The trouble is, while there is more than just an element of truth about what they are saying, I cannot believe that writers like myself who, over the years, have penned various articles on different subjects are, for want of a better expression, ready for the scrapheap and a job, perhaps, as a driving instructor or minicab driver. The worst thing is, I can hear myself talking to a bored passenger, "Yeah, mate, I used to be a journalist, innit, but the world wide web put paid to that," I might say as I drive an affluent baker-turned-webmaster to Gatwick Airport.

The sad irony there, of course, is that it is best, these days, to look for a profession that cannot be harmed by the internet. Sadder still is that the professions in question are, among others, minicab driver and driving instructor as you cannot learn to drive 'virtually' – yet. Who knows, the future might involve doing most of the test virtually using on-line simulators and then hopping in to a real car for 10 minutes to prove you have the hang of it in the real world – which means less in the way of driving lessons and yet another profession going to the wall. With minicab drivers it all rests on whether the technology behind the phrase 'beam me up, Scotty' will ever become reality. Either way, I am amazed at how many times I hear the phrase 'but sadly the industry is in long-term decline'. What, I wonder, will everybody be doing in this brave new world? Don't tell me, blogging for a tiny bit of on-line fame or wasting their time telling those on Twitter that they are eating a Twix for breakfast before doing the evening shift for a local minicab firm.

The web is a new force to be reckoned with and it might do for traditional journalism what Quark Express did for typesetters. Some magazines are folding but retaining 'an online presence' and now it is being suggested that journalists themselves are no longer what matters and how the general public have, so to speak, taken over the asylum. By general public I mean the 'readers' and they could be farmers or doctors, publicans or hoteliers, people who traditionally make up the circulation lists for many a 'business-to-business' publication.

This has always been the great paradox of trade publishing: that the readers of the magazines know more about the subject than the journalists – the difference being that the journalists can write. It is true, of course, in all aspects of journalism. Political correspondents on national newspapers are undoubtedly not as clued up as the politicians themselves, they don't have all the answers, nobody does. However, it is argued that the days when journalists simply applied 'their craft' to a subject are gone. Nowadays, it is all about information in its purest form: a comment on a blog, a thread on a forum site, a throwaway sentence on Twitter. Journalists are becoming facilitators overseeing, perhaps, a forum site or they might resort to 'blogging', which is basically writing their own thoughts and comments on their own or somebody else's weblog. Somebody once told me that blogging was an electronic form of vanity publishing. Maybe, but I think it has a lot more to offer.

Business-to-business magazines, as opposed to consumer titles, will be one of the most affected area of publishing in the face of the internet revolution. Mainstream consumer publications, like GQ and the recently launched UK edition of Wired, don't appear to be suffering commercially as a result of the internet. My copies of both magazines were choc-a-bloc with advertising and something tells me that readers of GQ, Wired and other quality consumer titles probably enjoy their magazines, printed as they are on high quality glossy paper and jam-packed full of decent photography and interesting, informative and entertaining features. There is something tactile about a quality magazine which beats sitting in front of a computer screen any day.

In trade publishing, however, quality has suffered as saving money has become the buzz phrase and, for some, the only way forward in the light of falling advertising revenue. Declining ad revenues are a concern for all forms of print-based publishing these days, but the business-to-business sector is suffering more for many reasons surrounding existing quality and circulation issues. Many trade magazines are printed on low quality paper stock because the publishers believe that a nice glossy, appealing magazine full of decent photography is not what their readers want, begging the question, have they asked them? Probably not. There is a view that trade publishing is inferior to newstand publications, that quality is not as important, perhaps, and that investment (in contributors and photography) is not such a pressing issue.

With a lot of 'CC' or controlled circulation titles, it has been argued, a little jokingly perhaps, that the readers receive the magazine whether they like it or not as, in commercial terms, trade journalism is all about proving to advertisers – or convincing them – that the magazine 'reaches' a certain audience. Some observers argue that the notion of doing anything to make the reading experience pleasurable for the 'reader' is often not even considered because it doesn't have to be; it is, after all, only trade publishing.

To get an idea of the way the mass media views trade publishing you just have to watch an edition of the BBC's topical news quiz, Have I Got News For You. Every week there is a 'guest publication', mainly from the trade sector, and its title always gets a laugh from the audience. In short, a lot of trade publishing is not taken very seriously and while, of course, there are many titles that are worthy of a titter or two – I've worked on one or two – there are some excellent publications which can get tarred with the same brush.

With some controlled circulation titles, phrases like 'captive audience' and 'hospital food' often spring to mind where the readers are concerned. Ironically, in a lot of cases, unscrupulous and often fly-by-night trade publishers cheat their advertisers by not sending the magazine out to those they claim to reach on their media packs. This, I would guess, is a widespread practice. More often than not the discrepancy can involve thousands of 'readers'. Secretly reducing the circulation is, of course, another way of saving money on print bills, especially in an economic downturn, but it amounts to fraud and advertisers are only protected by checking if the magazine's circulation is ABC certified – even then there are probably loopholes. Journalists beware if you hear a reader say, "I haven't seen a copy for some time".

Fortunately, this sorry state of affairs has been turned on its face by the internet, and while the future role of the business-to-business journalist is changing, the world wide web has certainly tipped the scales back in favour of editorial. Countless ad teams on trade magazines over the years have often remarked that they pay the wages of the journalists, a comment normally reserved for when the journalist questions a request to mention an advertiser editorially. While there was a time when the ad men ruled the universe in the eyes of some publishers, the onus has now switched and that well-worn phrase, 'content is king' rules supreme. The web, quite simply, has and will continue to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Logistically, the web means a move away from the aforementioned captive audience scenario of some controlled circulation titles to access for all – meaning that a quality editorial product is the only real driver of traffic. Business-to-business journalists, therefore, have a real opportunity to make their mark and possibly turn the tables and start to 'pay the wages' of the ad sales team.

The problem with the worldwide web and the digital age, of course, is that revenue streams have to be 're-calibrated'. With print costs eliminated, there is little to hide behind in terms of bumping up costs. I have noticed that photographers, no longer able to charge for laboratory processing, have started to charge for 'burning to CD', a phrase which conjures up images of the photographer donning a welding mask and asbestos suit and retreating to a garden shed but is, in reality, simply a case of dragging images from their computer's hard drive or USB stick to the CD icon on their 'desktops'.

Photographers are already feeling the pinch of the digital age. For some years now journalists have been turning up at press conferences clasping small, brushed aluminium cameras. Digital technology has almost made professional photographers obselete in the rush to save money. Editors, deputy editors, staff writers and editorial assistants are now 'photographers' as well as journalists, thanks to the digital age.

Journalists are 'doing it for themselves' clearly under the illusion that they can do it just as well as a professional photographer, thanks to digital technology. The truth is they can't and the result is that quality goes down another notch. Overnight, a trade magazine already printed on a low quality paper stock, now has below average, poorly composed, low resolution photography too. A vicious circle develops. The advertisers don't like what they see and reduce (or eliminate) their advertising. The downwards spiral continues.

Gone – or soon to be obselete, it is argued – is the traditional feature article. In its place we will have an interactive series of comments and pointers from a mix of individuals which, collectively, give others, including journalists, leads or an idea about what might be going on in a particular industry sector. All very interesting, but nobody seems to be getting paid for their efforts. Good news for publishers, perhaps, but not for the journalist.

Where or how does a journalist make money in the brave new world of the internet if his or her magazine closes and an uncertain freelance career full of 'bad payers' beckons? It's all very well setting up a blog, like I have, and writing little pieces like this, but how does one survive and pay a mortgage and school fees? A friend suggested to me recently that I need to have a 'web presence'. I need to put myself about electronically and 'have my say' on whatever it might be and then, just maybe, I might get picked up, noticed even, by somebody, and given a proper writing assignment. It's a big 'maybe', though, considering all the geeks and anoraks who tend to rule the internet and are prepared to work for nothing.

When do the bloggers get time to blog? If they blog all day, how do they earn a living? If they blog at night, for how long? Do they come home, gulp down their dinner and then spend until gone midnight in front of a computer screen blogging away? Do they have any kind of human interaction of a face-to-face nature or are they, like many teenagers, who spend from 4pm until gone 11pm 'chatting' on social networking sites, doing nothing but sitting at a screen 'blogging'. I write for a living during the day and while I enjoy what I do, I need some down time watching the television or reading a book. Why the hell would I want to 'blog' just for the hell of it? Although that is exactly what I am doing now.

When CDs took the place of vinyl, I managed to resist change for a while, preferring the record deck and the album cover. It used to be pleasurable buying a vinyl album not only because of the music but also the packaging. Albums that folded out and offered decent artwork and text were all part of the experience which, like a quality magazine, was tactile in nature. Eventually I succumbed to the CD revolution and now all my vinyl has either been sold off to secondhand record stores or is in the attic in boxes.

I have steered clear of music downloads and MP3 players because they offer nothing but the music, arguably leaving the artist exposed and no longer able to hide behind the work of commercial artists and photographers, but I sincerely hope that the digital revolution does not mark the end of books. Recently I saw somebody reading a digital book using some kind of hand-held electronic gadget. I began to wonder how many books she had stored on the device and whether she had taken the step of removing any books and bookcases from her house or apartment. Why would she need them, I figured. Again, it's that tactile quality of books that appeals.

Which brings us back to the internet and publishing. Ultimately, it is all about information. Trade magazines are supposed to be there to help people run their businesses more effectively, so perhaps that whole tactile thing is irrelevant. Fine in the consumer press, but not in the trade. Knowledge, after all, is power and the power base has shifted. It has moved away from the publishers and into the hands of the people. But a lot depends on the people too. Not everybody is 'web savvy' and not everybody enjoys sitting in front of a computer screen. They want to be relaxing in an armchair, on a plane or train, reading, say, their copy of Farmer's Weekly. So perhaps, for a while at least, magazines will co-exist with the on-line world.

There is, of course, no room for complacency. Journalists in all sectors cannot sit still. They should be familiarising themselves with the web and taking whatever courses they feel necessary in order to be on top of the situation. That, at any rate, is what I intend to do.

1 comment:

  1. "unscrupulous and often fly-by-night trade publishers cheat their advertisers by not sending the magazine out to those they claim to reach on their media packs. This, I would guess, is a widespread practice." With the web, advertisers can track the effectiveness of their ads.

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