PANPA Future Forum: Publishers prepare to take on content ‘looting’

Not surprisingly, the issue of how to charge for content and stop search engines looting it turned into the dominant issue at yesterday’s PANPA Future Forum, writes Peter Coleman.

A glittering array of speakers (and a few high-profile delegates) turned out for the free-to-members event in Sydney at which – initially at least – every seat was taken.

Brendan Hopkins, chief executive of APN and chairman of the The Newspaper Works initiative, likened the actions of search engines to having someone break into your house every day, and called for a reassessment of copyright laws. He says TNW plans an approach to search engine providers to open the door for negotiations by individual publishers over such issues.

And while WAN-Ifra joint chief executive Timothy Balding doubted whether newspapers’ woes were the fault of the internet, he too expressed concern about the “extraordinary dominance” of Google which, he says, accounts for most of search engines’ 75 per cent take of digital advertising revenue.

Search engines apart, newspapers would like readers to pay for access to their online content, just as many do for printed newspapers, and News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch has signalled his company’s intention to lead the way.

But at the forum, local News Digital Media chief executive Richard Freudenstein acknowledged that this could be a complicated process involving the creation of new forms of compelling content. And Hopkins was among many who reckoned publishers needed to explain why charging for quality journalism was necessary.

Fairfax was also given prime conference time to plug its ‘The National Times’ comment website which launches on Monday. While this is seen as a rival to News’ ‘The Punch’ – which scored a ‘best specialist website’ gong at last night’s Newspaper of the Year awards – it wouldn’t be surprising if both were at the vanguard of a ‘pay for content’ push, once established.

PANPA chief executive Mark Hollands says the Future Forum had been designed as a celebration of newspapers … and that it was.

It was a good day for outgoing president Robert Whitehead, whose welcoming role included giving NSW premier Nathan Rees a ‘red hot go’ at impressing publishers with his NSW government’s FOI credentials and upgraded AAA rating. Whitehead, who is Fairfax Media director of marketing and newspaper sales, later saw group flagship the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ named Newspaper of the Year in the major circulation category.

And it is understood his annual meeting proposal to change PANPA’s name to the Newspaper Publishers Association was also voted through unanimously after being explained to members.

At the forum opening, Whitehead told overseas delegates they were visiting the only OECD country to grow its economy, adding “Newspaper publishers have good reason to be more optimistic”

Ideas to rejoice and reinvigorate newspapers came from all over: Visiting from the UK, was ‘London Evening Standard’ managing editor Doug Wills, who says “you wouldn’t read about” the things which have been happening at the ailing afternoon daily since the business was bought by a billionaire former KGB spy for $2.

Changes made by new editor Geordie Greig – some culled from his background at the ‘Tatler’ magazine – had refreshed and repositioned the title with younger more affluent readers and boosted circulation.

Darren Burden of Fairfax Digital and last year’s Hegarty Prize winner Simon Holt brought ideas to the conference from around the world, while European newspaper designer Jacek Utko inspired with ideas and examples from newspapers he had worked with. “Use the advantage of print – show people the things you can’t show online,” he says.

Back from previous PANPA engagements – and currently working with an Australian client – UK consultant Mark Challinor showed how print and mobile could work together, developing reader reaction, and Océ director Robert Koeckeis told how his company’s digital print technology was being leveraged to create new newspaper publishing opportunities in Europe.

An afternoon technical stream included a review of plant upgrades in Australia and New Zealand from Fairfax print and logistics chief executive Bob Lockley. “If we’re going to survive, we’ve got to be clever – you’ve got to give publishers something to sell,” he told delegates, listing a raft of product innovations.

Lockley is also president of the Single Width Users’ Group, which will have its March 2010 conference in Tamworth, NSW, he disclosed.

Marcus Hooke – who moved from toothpaste production to be head of News Limited manufacturing – outlined how cultural changes made at the company’s Chullora print site had improved productivity and made installation of an extra press unnecessary.

Freehills duo Miles Bastick and Steve Bell talked delegates through new industrial relations and occupational health and safety issues and legislation, and the stream closed with technology updates from a range of vendors and sponsors.

The Future Forum was followed by PANPA’s annual meeting, the gala Newspaper of the Year presentation dinner and even an ‘after-party party’. All up, it wasn’t the three-day event to which PANPA conference delegates had become used over the years, but as a response to difficult times, it was a pretty encouraging base on which to build.
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