On the second day of next week’s Motor Sport Business Forum we’re going to set down our cappuccinos and canapés long enough to listen to a panel on the media. It’ll feature some of the most authoritative people writing about Formula 1 in the English language.
Media people talking about the media? It sounds painfully self-indulgent, and elements of it probably will be. But the flow of information from source to audience affects us all; and the media industry is undergoing a colossal realignment that has already started to change the way we consume Formula 1.
We’ll hear from Jonathan Noble of AUTOSPORT (apologies for shouting, but as an occasional contributor I should probably remain ‘on brand’), Joe Saward of grandprix.com, former ITV commentator and pre-eminent F1 blogger James Allen, and Ian Burrows, the commercial director of F1 Racing. It’s a big subject so I’ll leave the editorial aspects for separate posts and talk about the commerce-driven structural changes – for good or ill – in this one.
Had you noticed we’re in a recession? Mercy me, so we are. Actually, though, the media industry has been in an ersatz recession for a decade; it’s just that the rest of the world has caught up all of a sudden, tipping the industry properly over the edge.
The media industry has been in an ersatz recession for a decade; it’s just that the rest of the world has caught up all of a sudden
At the tail end of the 1990s the publishing world went wild over the world wide web. In a mediaverse where a blackberry was still just one of the ingredients of Vimto, directors and proprietors who had only just become aware of the ‘inter-net’ stubbed out their cigars and decreed that their companies must immediately have an all-singing, all-dancing ‘web-site’.
The later they woke up, the more money they spent. Even after the dotcom bust in March 2000, one newspaper group (the one whose former proprietor helped himself to the pension fund and then fell off his yacht) went on a hiring spree in which it recruited an entire online editorial team to operate in parallel with the print title. Within a year it had realised its folly and was forced to lay the majority of them off, at substantial expense.
Thus, the quandary: to keep in step with their competitors and to retain control of their brands, publishers had to stay on the net. But online revenues weren’t big enough to pay staff the going rate. The result has been an insanely self-destructive process in which the print titles (which make money) subsidise their online equivalents (which don’t), all the while reinforcing the customers’ expectation that content is and ought to be free. Meanwhile, paper costs have been creeping up, forcing cover prices to rise and accelerating the desertion of readers to online sources.
On the basis of “If you build it, they will come,” publishers have spent the past decade chasing online traffic numbers in the hope that someone will find a way of making money out of the internet before people stop buying newsprint entirely. Perhaps it would arrive in the form of some great Victorian machine, hissing and steaming and farting out alchemical chunks of gold. The inventor could go on Dragons’ Den and even Deborah Meaden would invest.
Perhaps it would arrive in the form of some great Victorian machine, hissing and steaming and farting out alchemical chunks of gold. The inventor could go on Dragons’ Den and even Deborah Meaden would invest
Anyway, this much-anticipated device never arrived. And now that the rest of the world is in recession, the downturn in ad revenues has forced publishers to cut budgets, because the print titles can no longer subsidise their online siblings. Those cuts manifest themselves in many different ways: from sending fewer reporters to events overseas to having fewer reporters on staff in the first place, and reducing the number of ‘back room’ personnel (both permanent and freelance) who police the quality control. Some newspapers have unified print and online teams and even expect writers to make their own copy fit on the page. You only have to look at the stylistic dog’s dinner that is the Telegraph to see this is a bad thing.
Sub editors can be querulous and annoying people who enjoy nothing better than to halt work for a 10-minute debate about whether the term ‘motorsport’ should be one word or two. But for all their foibles, they perform a useful function. A good sub can save a writer from minor illiteracies, self indulgence and outright egg-on-face anfactualities; sadly, bad ones can introduce wrongness to otherwise fine copy, which is why many writers are hanging out the bunting to celebrate the impending death of this profession.
Champions of new media will tell you that reader interaction has made this strand of quality control obsolete. The theory goes that if what you write is inaccurate or untrue, your readers will call you out on it. And that’s true – up to a point. But why should your customers have to correct your mistakes, or point out that what you’ve served up is essentially cant, piffle and tosh?
Why should your customers have to correct your mistakes, or point out that what you’ve served up is essentially cant, piffle and tosh?
In this downsized world of digital dark satanic mills, fewer permanent reporters will be travelling to grands prix (I’ll examine the implications of this for the depth, accuracy and honesty of F1 coverage in a separate post). The British press has been spared a major cull over the past year or two thanks to the popularity of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, but this is an expensive sport to cover. When the interest of the mass audience in F1 dwindles, the axe will swing.
Those who remain will have to be more entrepreneurial – if they’re freelance – or work for companies that are exploring new ways to tap into the marketing budgets of companies involved in F1. It’ll be interesting to hear from James, who has obtained Tag Heuer sponsorship for his site and self-published a 2009 yearbook in collaboration with F1’s greatest photographer, Darren Heath.
Joe has a different approach, hedging his bets somewhat: a blog with Google ads and a sort of virtual ‘tip box’; a site with conventional ads; and a paid-for e-zine. He’s happy to admit that none of these individually makes a mint, but in combination they enable him to carry on reporting from the front line.
Next up, I’ll explore how greater reader interaction is driving the flow of content. And, speaking of reader interaction, it’s comments time. Which sites do you value most? What kind of ads do you find intrusive? Do you respond to web ads or do you use blocking software? Also, if you have any questions for the delegates at the Forum, I’ll try to put them across.