01 December 2009

Peter Preston on the future of news

Peter Preston

Former Guardian editor and Observer columnist Peter Preston painted a picture of a rapidly changing media landscape that presented difficulties but also offered tremendous opportunities for students entering the profession, at a lecture at Sheffield University.

Mr Preston, who edited the Guardian from 1975 to 1995, also challenged some of the received wisdom about the move from print-based newspapers to a web-based model of news, and suggested the transition from one to the other might not be as smooth as some pundits have suggested.

Mr Preston was delivering the latest in a series of guest lectures organised by the Department of Journalism Studies that has attracted leading media commentators from the UK and abroad.

He pointed out that the latest figures for October 2009 in the US suggested that number of unique users visiting the websites of major news organisations such as the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times was declining by between 15 and 20% a year.

Even purely web-based operations, such as the Huffington Post, were experiencing similar declines.

Fewer than half of internet users bothered to visit the sites of major news organisations at all, he said, and those that did, on average, did not spend a great deal of reading the content. Figures for the New York Post, for example, suggested the average user spent about nine minutes per month reading the website.

“None of this means the internet is anything other than a fantastic tool, but the idea of an inexorable shift is pretty dodgy,” he said.

“But it does show that the transition from a circulation based model to the internet, where advertising rates are typically about a tenth of newspaper rates, will be slow and thoughtful.”

He also questioned the drive to integration of journalistic jobs – where reporters are required to masters of all trades – and suggested in future news organisation will value young entrepreneurs who can come up with revenue generating ideas.

“We live in a world of extreme change that is extremely challenging and interesting,” he concluded.

“I believe news organisations will be funded by a combination of things – advertising, subscriptions, paywalls – but there will also be a need entrepreneurial thinking.

“It is daunting and fascinating and you are brilliantly placed to take advantage of it.”