Media fear to be the one left on the shelf

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue – the traditional wedding refrain – could justifiably be applied to the often clumsy unions between old and new media. The “borrowed” and “blue” being emblematic of an absence of fresh ideas and a reluctant, conservative approach to change on the part of old media.

That change is needed is no longer at issue, even among the most traditional. But fear, rather than any mature strategic decision-making, seems to be what’s forcing the pace – their fear of being left behind. Take national newspapers owners, for example. On the surface, the current spate of price-cutting among middle and mass-market titles has little to do with the wider media world. The cuts are quite shallow, tactical and probably not destined for the long term. The Daily Mail is seeing off its traditional rival, the Express in time-honoured fashion, and perhaps taking a pop at The Times, which has been increasingly active at the top end of the middle market. Except, why should the magisterial Mail (circulation about 2.4 million) worry itself with the increasingly insignificant Express (circulation about 840,000)? The fact is even the mighty Mail, previously unstoppable bellwether of national newspapers, must consider its position. Readership is on the slide and so is circulation (if ever so slightly). Overall, decline of UK newspapers is unstoppable, though Bert Hardy’s heroic defence at the Evening Standard shows that a few tactical victories may be possible. Lord Rothermere, principal owner of the Mail and Standard, is well aware that something radical needs to be done – why else sell off his profitable local newspaper titles? – but how he plans to spend the money is a mystery.

One option, of course, would be to go down the Rupert Murdoch route and buy every halfway decent online property his company can afford before someone else pre-empts him. Murdoch’s second Damascene conversion in five years to the wonders of online, not to mention his subsequent $1bn spend fest on such diverse operations as Rotten Tomatoes and MySpace.com, has raised a few eyebrows (most prominently those of Sir Martin Sorrell) about the wisdom of this eclectic strategy. No surprise to find that there is sharply divided opinion, therefore, about the appointment of wonder kid Jeremy Philips as NewsCorp’s first online supremo. Is this the farsighted empowerment of someone who really knows what he’s doing by one of the few individuals in the world that can actually make his own market? Or is Murdoch simply an old man in a hurry who has picked a youthful deputy to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

Another instance of the old meeting the shock of the new is GCap, product of the merger of GWR and Capital Radio last year. Mergers, they say, rarely add value, but at the core of GCap’s well-publicised difficulties lies the specific problem of Capital’s shrinking audience. Good old-fashioned hubris was partly responsible for this. But in fighting back, Capital has found itself confronting a host of new media adversaries (podcasting, mobile personalised radio channels etc) as well as Chrysalis and Heart. In a radical move born of desperation it has halved advertising “clutter” and doubled its playlist. GCap is a classic example of a traditional media company forced to fight a war on two fronts: placating advertisers dismayed at dwindling audiences, while struggling to master the complexities of new media. Speaking of which, there is ITV and its stab at a provisional repositioningâ¦

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