IPSO Blog: The Bob Satchwell Lecture

Policy and Public Affairs Officer Sophie Malleson on the Bob Satchwell lecture given by John Witherow.

This week, I attended the second Society of Editors’ Satchwell Lecture, named in honour of its founding executive director Bob Satchwell, who retired because of ill health in 2017.

It was given by the Editor of the Sunday Times John Witherow, at Stationers Hall in London, and was a fascinating insight into recent changes in the newspaper industry and journalistic life.

Witherow’s speech began with tales of “ferocious” competition and the fast-paced nature of the UK press. He spoke with passion of a newspaper industry with a “sense of mission” in journalism and the overwhelming desire to be first with a story.

He observed that the last twenty years has seen more changes to the industry than any other in The Times’ 235-year history but that despite these changes, the press’ competitive nature continues to drive creativity and “a willingness to experiment”.

I found the examples of how The Times has tried to adapt to industry changes interesting. It has introduced subscriptions for its online readers and has done away with attempts to mimic the 24-hour continual rolling news coverage available (for free) from Twitter and the BBC, instead, choosing to follow an edition strategy where it publishes full updates at set intervals during the day. Comment, analysis, exclusives and investigations are now, Witherow believes, the four main ingredients that the paper’s readers want.

Witherow predicts the reach of serious, general interest newspapers that invest in quality content will only grow in the decades ahead and says that it is Facebook and Google that refuse to pay a fair price for the content that fortifies their platforms.

He is not the first newspaper editor to call for the breakup of online giants such as Facebook. Nor is he the first to accuse platforms of sucking up digital advertising revenue, or of profiting from journalistic content at a low price.

His speech reiterated not just the threats to the press, but its overall importance it public life. He put it frankly when he said “funnily enough, Facebook doesn’t fund war correspondents”.

He also reminded the audience of the risks journalists take to bring us their reports, how many had died doing their jobs, and the risks they face in countries that lock them up for their reporting.