MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Newspapers must change their ways to head off decline

Innovation and newspapers sit together in the same sentence about as comfortably as David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson sharing a dressing room. And if you suggest to a newspaper boss that his or her product is poor, needs investment and must do more for advertisers, you are likely to get a boot in the face too.

It's that sort of a business. It can be conservative, undynamic and brutish.

Yet at its heart, the sheer, awe-inspiring scale of the print operations, combined with some top-class journalism and brilliant exclusives, makes it the most exciting business in the world.

But it's a shame that this excitement so rarely comes across as you plod through page after page of earnest reporting of the Hutton Inquiry. In this turgid landscape, it's no wonder that even bitter rivals of Times Newspapers were cracking open the bubbly at the launch of The Sunday Times' CD-Rom product The Month.

You could hear the collective sighs of relief as the industry said: "At last somebody has had an original idea that we can copy."

Whether it is an idea worth stealing I'll leave for others to judge (I tried it but it crashed my iMac and it took half an hour to extract the disc with a paper clip from my computer). But at least it's an idea that, providing you have a decent computer, plays with the traditional form of newspapers and offers some concessions to younger readers.

Advertisers hope that other newspaper groups are developing new ideas both to bring in more readers but, more than that, take the medium forward. Instead they have been tinkering, in the most conservative fashion, with their editorial product. Sticking to their knitting but dropping the odd stitch here or there.

It's well documented that Piers Morgan's wander toward more serious news cost the Daily Mirror readers. And did it please advertisers? Not a bit of it. And what of The Daily Telegraph's attempt to lure readers before they require a Zimmer frame? Well, Irvine Welsh and Alan Hansen and an expensive ad campaign have cost it just 8,000 readers since January. Which is a sparkling achievement given the high mortality rate of its audience.

Even The Times, which of the quality dailies has instigated the most impressive changes (and this week launches an online entertainment product), has added a mere 11,000 readers since March when a raft of modifications were announced. But again, like its sister, it is playing with the conventions and, importantly, is moving toward a more objective news agenda.

It's probably not fair to mention the Newspaper Marketing Agency. It doesn't have the remit of encouraging proprietors or shareholders to invest in new launches or to back wholesale change of newspaper formats. But, rather than a bit of sport here or a new columnist there, that is what is needed if newspapers are to reverse their long-term decline.


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