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March 17, 2009

The moment of capitulation: “There’s nothing out there”

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

— Clay Shirky, Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable (2009)

Jon Slattery’s excellent ‘Where the hell do we go from here?’makes some telling points. One of the most poignant is subliminal, delivered in this quote from an anonymous former regional newspaper editor: 

“There’s simply nothing out there. Six weeks ago they were an editor, a man of significant substance in their community; today they’re signing on.”

These are the words you hear when impersonal economic forces strip human beings of their raison d’etre. They could have been spoken in Corby or South Yorkshire during the 1980s.

The same goes for Slattery’s piece as a whole, with its gallows humour, hints of collateral domestic turmoil, and complaints about clueless executives and ‘international conglomerates”.

Oh, and there’s the internalised personal cost of what’s currently happening in the regional press. Don’t underestimate it. One of Slattery’s sources talks of editors ‘being forced to destroy everything they’ve worked for”:

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“They’re forced to sit in meetings telling lowly paid senior reporters with families and mortgages that they’re going to be made redundant when they know that handsome profits are still being made, but they have to do it in the hope of hanging on to their own jobs. The hypocrisy and guilt is eating them up.”

During the 1980s, the first stirrings of globalization nudged coal miners and steel workers toward the scrapheap. Today, regional journalists have become the new miners, the new steel workers.

For me, Slattery’s piece captures the precise moment when defiance collapses into what the financial markets precisely define as “capitulation”.

At times like these, the grandees running for the exit have a tendancy to throw comforting suggestions over their shoulder. Roger Parry, the outgoing chairman of Johnston Press, offered up a gem-like example a fortnight ago.

Parry suggested that “we” (it wasn’t quite obvious to whom he was referring) should “retrain our local journalists to be fully competent on video and audio”.

That way, Parry said, local newspaper hacks could apply for jobs at the new public sector broadcast outfit that Lord Carter is constructing from the mangled remains of Channel 4.

Beneath the Press Gazette blog post announcing Parry’s bright idea, a reader called “Happy Wednesdays” posted a corrective single-line comment: “[Channel] Five announces plans to make 25% of staff redundant.”

No mess, no fuss: this is the tone of voice in which capitulation speaks.

Necessarily, by extension, somewhere in Soho, right at this very moment, a latter-day Alan Bleasdale is pitching a contemporary version of Boys From The Blackstuff to a Channel 4 executive who may or may not have recently accepted a 25% reduction in ‘earnings potential‘for 2009.

The show will be set in a Job Centre in the midlands and feature a cast of shiftless unemployed subs, some of whom are considering emigration to Bangalore.

One of the least important questions facing the director is who will play the role of Roger Parry. . .

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