In Business Media Mayhem

The great and much-maligned newspaperman Roy Thomson was a failed farmer, short-sighted, skint at 40, but eventually successful enough (papers, commercial television, tourism and North Sea Oil) to become Lord Thomson of Fleet and leave his son an empire which at the time of his death in 2006 made him the ninth wealthiest person in the world. (His son David is now chairman of Thomson Reuters, of which more below.)

It is a quite remarkable business story, but many British journalists of the time would have denied Roy Thomson the title of "newspaperman" because he was so interested in the business of the press, not the words in it (now banally termed "content").

He would travel by underground to New Printing House Square in Gray's Inn Road in London, and when he got into his office at the Times and the Sunday Times he would take out a ruler and (holding it close to his eyes) measure the advertising columnage in his papers.

Newspaper snobs thought that (vital) sort of consideration beneath them.

Lord Thomson was also vilified for predicting that only two or three national newspapers would survive in Fleet Street by the 1980s.

This was one place where his extraordinary canniness abandoned him. Few newspapers in Britain disappeared in the 20th century though some (such as the Sunday Correspondent) came and went. The Independent was added; so was the Mail on Sunday.

Although they changed hands faster and faster, ownership of a newspaper endowed the proprietor with too much power for him or her to worry too much about the lack of profitability. These opportunities were particularly attractive to outsiders such as Roy Thomson in Canada, but he made money out of them by challenging the establishment.

Then the unshackling of the newspaper production process from the tyranny of the print unions gave British newspapers a new lease of something like life outside the old confines of Fleet Street.

And some papers managed to make money. Indeed the Sun and the News of the World became a great cash powerhouse that at times seemed to be keeping the rest of the outsider Rupert Murdoch's international empire going.

But the press was always a dicey business proposition, hideously perishable and in thrall to the idea that size of circulation was the only thing that advertisers cared about, and they ruled the roost.

So the economics of newspapers was always a dubious one ... a product given away almost free, with a circulation in need of constant inflation from hideously expensive stunts, encyclopaedias and insurance in the 1930s, giveaway CDs today, the whole thing subsidised by advertising.

"We died of clots in the circulation department," a former executive of the much mourned News Chronicle told me in a pub in Oxford 40 years ago.

But the new assault on the media is of quite different proportions, and from the threats to titles and closures breaking out all over this appears to be a threshold year.

Print and broadcasting is suddenly being put through a double mangle: the agony of recession which always hits advertising, but far more important the far bigger structural changes associated with the shift of eyeballs and advertising to the Internet.

The Thomson Corporation foresaw this years ago. It got out of newspapers altogether and built a new empire around the specialist electronic media and training. As Thomson Reuters it now incorporates the venerable Reuters which itself had so brilliantly migrated from being a general international news agency service owned by its customers the newspapers in the 1970s to becoming a financial data goldmine in the 1980s.

But how do other media organisations manage to do migration now? It's a hugely difficult proposition, which this programme tries to shed a little bit of light on.

Finding a new business model is not easy at all, but it matters because without the reporting done by vibrant papers and broadcasters, democracy itself is imperilled. Whatever the digital enthusiasts say.

Peter Day

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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