Tony Delamothe: The spoken word

Tony DelamotheI spent Friday afternoon at three sessions on The Spoken Word at King’s Place, London.

The first featured the editor of the New Statesman and a stand in for the editor of the Spectator. (James Forsyth – a star columnist on the Spectator and Mail on Sunday).

Both talked about the importance to their publications of being read by a significant proportion of opinion leaders (of the left and right respectively).

Anecdote: A few years ago, the publisher of the Spectator joyfully told the editorial team that subscription figures were up. To which a member of the editorial team responded: “I can remember when our circulation was only 3000 but everybody read us.”

The New Statesman has been in a financially parlous state for most of its history, although this year it should lose only about £100 000, and next year it should go into profit. Its editor said his marketing budget was down 80% over a few years ago. What they sink their money into is good journalism. Guest edited issues (by Rowan Williams, Jemima Khan, and Alastair Campbell) have attracted enormous attention, “which shows what a small magazine can do.”  (As 500 paid subscribers cancelled their subscription after the  Alistair Campbell issue its publisher didn’t want too many similar successes.)

Because of its unique soul, the Spectator would never risk handing over the reins to an outsider. They like keeping close to the tribe of  Conservative MPs at Westminster and hope the feeling that readers encounter when they read news accounts elsewhere about  Westminster is “deja lu” (ie they’ve already read glimmerings of the story in the Spectator).

The second session was on news innovation. The Guardian trumpeted its “digital first” philosophy  (this is a subtle advance over web first ). That trajectory is unstoppable they said (as we recognised some years ago). It requires the newspaper to think hard about other features (the sessions were filmed; presumably these films will be regarded as just as much part of the Guardian‘s output as traditional print stories – see a quotation from  Alan Rusbridger below).  For the three media outlets featured, Adam Boulton from  Sky News made the point that their News functions were all subsidised: Sky News by the rest of Murdoch’s empire, The Guardian by Autotrader (The Guardian continues to haemorrhage vast amounts of money), and the BBC by the licence payers.

The consensus was that news was being commoditised – everyone is providing it for free and it will never pay for itself. This shows the importance now of columnists to interpret the news, preened the columnists. They claim that what they say now matters more to politicians than what political editors say.

An aside: “The hardest thing to do is to get an article corrected. Journalists hate to admit they get anything wrong.”

But blogging is undermining this: bloggers are expected to provide accessible sources for their assertions and to respond to criticisms when readers make them.: “Internet journalism is far more contestible.” (Maybe one more feature of the newish media that’s futile to resist.)


From a Q&A with Alan Rusbridger (Guardian editor) in the Kings Place programme:

“Newspapers are moving beyond being printed artefacts -and actually, beyond being digitally delivered products on different platforms. Live encounters, discussions, and collaborations are an increasing part of what we do: they are all part of what we’re thinking of as a kind of ‘open’ journalism. We’ve got ambitious plans for using the space of Kings Place to allow readers to meet and discuss our journalism and how they can contribute to it.”

Tony Delamothe is deputy editor, BMJ.