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08:43

Media economist: Government ‘doesn’t understand economics’ over relaxing ownership rules

On Wednesday I spoke at the thoroughly enjoyable Journalism’s Next Top Model conference at Westminster University. Highlight of the day was keynote speaker Robert Picard, a media economist able to separate publishers’ sense of entitlement from the hard realities of economics and business (mis)management.

Journalism will survive, he said, because there will always be a demand for it. But most print publishers will die because over the past few decades they quite simply haven’t managed their accounts responsibly. While a typical business should have a debt-to-equity ratio of around 1:1, some publishers have racked up ratios ranging from 6:1 to 66:1.

“If you haven’t managed your balance sheet you get in trouble in a recession. Do I feel bad for them? No. They made stupid mistakes.”

One particular mistake highlighted by Picard was the switch in the 1990s from making acquisitions with stock to making acquisitions with debt.

“All the newspapers were making profits when they went bankrupt,” he pointed out. It was their handling of debt that killed them.

I asked Robert about the government’s plans to relax (and consider removing) local media ownership rules – and whether that would indeed create the environment for entrepreneurialism they want to encourage. His response was simple: “You don’t encourage competition by relaxing ownership rules.

“They don’t understand economics,” if they thought that would happen, he continued. “We need people to start more media organisations, not merge into fewer organisations.”

Picard seemed to feel that the Dutch government’s moves to provide funds to help news organisations restructure, or to re-skill journalists, were more intelligent responses.

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