Newspapers need transfusion of new blood to stay relevant

A clique-ridden attitude is why 'old' media is dying, writes former Daily Mail and Daily Express executive Grant Feller.

There is always something exciting about being the editor of a newspaper and announcing the arrival of a new columnist to stir the emotions of readers and entice new loyalties from those unfamiliar with your product.

It was fascinating, then, to see i – perhaps the only national publication deliberately trying to appeal to a younger demographic – recently herald the arrival of star columnist Nick Clegg to its ranks. Another white, middle-aged, middle class man. Insightful for sure but, well, with a picture byline not very different to anyone else’s.

But what do you expect from an industry dominated at the highest ranks by white, middle-aged, middle class men? Only two dailies – the Daily Star and The Guardian – are edited by women. The decision-makers of nearly every significant department are far older than those of 20 years ago. Their ranks are not being swelled by young turks conniving their ways up the ladder. Instead, in an era in which traditional media is desperately trying to appeal to new and younger readers – in print and online – newspapers are being run by middle-aged desk-blockers.

The plethora of platforms, the astonishing immediacy and the enormous need for intelligent writing mean this is one of the greatest times to be a creator or consumer of journalism. And yet to a large degree, younger, more digitally-aware and creative people aren’t being given opportunities within these enclosed, highly-controlled newspapers. Which means the things that they want aren’t always being offered by people who merely pretend to be digital natives and have predictable, more narrow points of view.

For example, they want to engage with instant analytics, to see who is reading, when, where and how. They want creators to engage with consumers rather than block them off. They want to let light in on decision-making and see editors in action during tempestuous conferences. They want less screaming bias and more nuance, less obsession with national and more community journalism. They want technology to liberate them to contribute and share more easily. They want purpose-driven editorial rather than vindictiveness. They don’t want to have to wait a week for their favourite lifestyle sections but want them more immediately, possibly daily. They want to see new content and columnists launched and operated with a fail-fast mentality.

They want more video, perhaps watching columnists as well as reading them. They want – and may be willing to pay for – access to the enormous cuts library so they can use technology to provide greater depth and context. They want to experiment with new payment models, such as micropayments or memberships that will allow closer contact with favourite contributors. They want student-friendly e-papers with more relevant content, or ultra-shortened versions of the traditional paper. Or they want personalised papers so they can consume precisely the kind of content they choose rather than that controlled by the editorial gatekeepers.

And they want more youthful representation. I was lucky enough to be 28 when I ran my first department on a national newspaper – my boss and her deputy were 33 and 31 and two of the most important executives in the office. Today, journalists of that age – millennials – are not running departments but working for HuffPost, Medium and other media outlets. Not because they are more professionally-run but because they are more relevant, responsive and innovative.

Crucially, they see control as a negative. Senior executives within newspapers have always been petrified of embracing this era of borderless interaction because they fear that the less control they wield, the less important they become. This clique-ridden attitude, as much as the unfashionable nature of newspaper reading, is why ‘old’ media is dying. In The Spectator magazine the editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz, recently called for journalism to be more inclusive if it is to regain the public’s trust – he’s right but it also needs to feel fresher, younger and less predictable.

That desire to exert control – and the self-imposed belief that journalists must adhere to controlled conditions such as certain ‘slots’ or daily sections set in stone  – is why mainstream media has problems embracing this new digital age. They are still entrenched in old ways of thinking and doing. Nobody outside of newspapers uses the word slot any more, as if there is some perfectly designed matrix within which only a certain number of pieces, written to a certain length, must fit.

Marketers understand this new dynamic – brands are no longer wholly in control of the messages, values and conversations. The consumer is, at least partly. It’s the job of the brand and its media partners to shape not just to lead react rather than simply have a set-in-stone strategy, accede control willingly at the right moments to engender greater customer loyalty. Even to create a ‘slot’ in an instant if one doesn’t exist and can add value.

That’s why millennials, who rightly see this is a golden age for journalism, are turned off by legacy institutions. Because they prefer to read and commission material judged on how interesting it is, rather than who has written it.

Ah, but you might lose the older, more loyal readers by gravitating to a new, funkier audience. Well, yes, you might but the DMGT's MailOnline ‘experiment’ has shown that a brand needn’t offer just one type of product. And do-nothing is not a strategy.

I now use my journalistic skills within advertising, marketing, PR and business and – at 49 – am frequently the oldest in the room. Nick Clegg might have the edge on me there. For the work I’m doing, my relative age is a bonus but I am constantly learning fresh insights, techniques and attitudes by being taken out of my comfort zone and being exposed to new influences. The people with whom I’m collaborating have been promoted to senior positions not just because they are talented but because they are the audiences they are trying to reach.

Newspapers are also meant to be trying to reach new audiences to stay alive – but the decision-makers and contributors are still depressingly old.

Grant Feller is director of GF Media and a former executive at the Daily Mail and Daily Express


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