Can public services learn from the newspaper industry?

There is something about newsprint, especially newsprint you were not intended to read. I’m sure fish & chips tasted all the better in my youth because I could smooth out and read the newspaper in which they were wrapped. Was it the same for you?

Of course there was always a greasy stain over the most interesting article, but somehow this challenge made the experience all the more appealing. And then the newspapers used by our local chip shop were always racier than those available to read at home.

But as we all know print media is changing dramatically. New Start once published this monthly column in a printed magazine. Now the title is entirely published online. Across the publishing world increasing costs, decreasing advertising income and the iPad are accelerating the move from paper to digital.

And it doesn’t stop there. Many bemoan the fact that cash-strapped publishers are cutting back on journalists too. They talk about declining standards, yet few, I suspect, would pay the necessary cover price for the newspaper they aspire to read.

Then this week I realised that this metamorphosis of the newspaper industry is in fact a metaphor for Big Society. How many organisations do you know, working in education, health or social care that find themselves facing these same pressures? Let me tell you more.

The Eastern Daily Press is the most widely read daily newspaper in Norfolk. It is unique in its market penetration. It even outsells the Sun. This I guess is why it has chosen to innovate and launch a user content driven website called iwitness24. The best time always to innovate is when you’re already ahead of the field.

As well as rather a catchy name, the website encourages readers to upload their own news stories and pictures. It also enables readers to rate contribution, introducing an element of competition. People in Norfolk now have the opportunity to be recognised as top ‘iwitnesses’. For the self-publicist, it’s a gift.

The real value for the contributor is that here is a ready-made audience.  You don’t have to work hard to drive traffic to your blog. Instead you just need to become popular by posting stuff where others already go to read.

A cynical friend said that this was simply a move to swap professional journalists for free reporting. I disagree. The future of newspapers is not their ability to report news; that happens online 24/7. Newspapers are valued most for their views and comment. It’s how they help you make sense of what is happening that adds value.

So what can we learn from this if we are running a frontline service? Well perhaps it’s about volunteering. Are you paying people to do stuff that others might do because it helps them learn, gain experience or even just feel good about themselves?

And do you remember how, until recently, everyone talked about the importance of ‘service user led’ organisations? Well surely that’s what iwitness24 is for the EDP? How much more appealing for the world’s remaining advertisers to know that here’s a readership who, well, read. I bet your service users don’t load their good news directly onto your website? Think how good it would be if they did.

Let me leave you with this thought. When the chips are down, perhaps it’s time to pick up the paper!


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Jacob Urup Nielsen
Jacob Urup Nielsen
12 years ago

Thank you for an interesting blog post, which has given food for thought.

I am unsure whether the analogy actually works for me. While I agree that many of us read newspapers for the comments and editorials, I also treasure the aspirational objectivity of most newspapers. The revenue generated by the cover price gives hope that journalists can focus on delivering unbiased reporting to their readership.

I would fear if we only had free reporting this would be riddled with vested interest. I think we need professionalism in most walks of life – also in public services. That being said a think it is a wonderful idea to add value and deliver frills that the public purse cannot afford in times of austerity. The question is also whether the comparison is flawed when it come to sustainability – can we just close public services if we do not have any volunteers? That being said, I would see an enormous potential for laypersons to innovate and improve services both as you have highlighed with your EDP example but also more generally for public services.

Again, thanks for a thought provoking piece which certainly highlights lessons to be learnt but ultimately the analogy doesn’t work for me in its pure form.

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