Reclaiming the shipping media

In this guest blog, Richard Clayton, Chief Maritime Correspondent of IHS Markit argues that, however much the media has changed, it remains a people business.

Whatever is happening to the maritime media? It has become almost impossible to get readers to pay good money for hard-grafted stories, let alone for the bane of an editor’s life: press release re-writes. In the fourth of my breakfast briefings at the end of September, I tackled this issue with an audience that included several students, some public relations folk, cyber security experts, a couple of chief executives, and others.

It seems to me that maritime readers fall into one of three camps: some need a steady stream of information about what competitors are doing, how the markets are developing and what’s likely to change in their world. Then there’s a second group who are more technology-focused; they seek new ideas or new ways of using the kit we already have, and need to understand the strengths and limitations of what’s available and what’s coming along.

Then there are the visionaries who ignore daily news and short-term thinking; there are turned on by trends and shifts that won’t be fully understood until months, and perhaps years, ahead. This third group is not driven by quarterly financial results; like a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, they think the unthinkable.

Only the first of these groups are interested in traditional news-driven media, so publishers who stubbornly stick to the tried and tested regime on daily outputs can expect to see not only fewer takers but also a declining revenue stream as more and more news is available, free, on the web.

To make matters worse, in-house or external communications teams have become adept at writing company messages at a particular audience. All too often, these messages are grabbed, topped and tailed, and posted as news in magazines and newspapers, online bulletins, and on TV and radio programmes. We are all besieged by an avalanche of information on a dozen different platforms. It’s harder to think beyond the immediate snippet; if we miss that one, another will come along in a few moments, incorporating the morsel you missed.

Further, like so many other sectors of our world, shipping’s media has become attacked by the belief that not only have our readers the attention span of a gnat but they are impressed by the virtue of being first with the news. Speed has taken over from accuracy as the chief attribute of a story. I have no complaint that readers are unwilling to pay for items that are (a) unverified, (b) incomplete, and (c) badly written.

However, it’s important to know that the media does more than report news. Journalists are, to quote Financial Times contributing editor John Lloyd, engaged in the daily effort to “convey complexity, nuance, doubt, and contested facts in ways that inform but do not preach, assert but leave space for revision.” Coverage of a new engine or coating, or an acquisition of a business or a partnership agreement, must therefore come with context and consequence: what lies behind this news and how might it change the current position? That shifts the onus onto journalists to upgrade information to knowledge. It means resisting the temptation to be first with the snippet of news. It means adding analysis and insight that isn’t available anywhere else. Without doubt this lifts the media to a higher level, but is it enough to make companies pay for it?

I think not. We’re missing something here, something that people will pay for.

Sunday Times investigative journalist Jonathan Calvert believes journalism is much more than trawling through databases and searching the net in the hope of finding a story. It’s about people.

“Ninety-nine per cent of journalism is a human resource thing,” Calvert writes. “It’s about contacts, finding the right people who might know things, hoping people might give you things. It’s not impossible [to find a story on the internet] but you are rarely going to get something that’s really great from that. The best stuff comes from your fellow human beings.”

The shipping business is driven by people, so the shipping media must reflect that emphasis. Data, information, and knowledge can only be as useful as the people who gather it, analyse it, and add value to it. More than that, while there is obvious value in training analysts to be better analysts, media businesses should educate the industry in what analytics and insight are available.

And that’s usually best done away from newspapers and digital media, through briefings and seminars that showcase what a media business with a broad portfolio can do and how it can help shipping businesses to take better decisions. We shouldn’t assume that managers and operators know what they need; they believe what they have bought is as good as it gets, however that’s not always the case. Those briefings and seminars should be built around networking because, whatever else has changed, people still talk to people.

However much the platforms evolve – from hard-copy newspapers and magazines through to tablets, smart phones, and whatever comes next – the key to good media lies in journalists listening, asking incisive questions, building a network of contacts, and being persistent. And that’s worth paying for.


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2 thoughts on “Reclaiming the shipping media”

  1. I’m afraid that I cannot agree more with Richard’s observations. However, there also is such phenomena as economising publishers, claiming assignment of copyright of freelance journalists for free, reduce payment of their contributions or simply use advertorial in their publications. It is not only businesses that does not want to pay for expert work as published in special interest media, but the media themselves are reluctant to pay for expert contributions of correspondents. You know what the saying is: if you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys.

  2. There is a perhaps inevitable conflict between the increasing complexity and associated nuance of the maritime industry, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the decreasing time available to make decisions. The impetuousness of decision makers may also be creeping into this mix.

    Why pay for something that will not be read? Why pay for something that will take longer to read and understand than there is time in which to make a decision?

    Unwilling to pay, we inevitably turn to our networks. However, our networks need to properly informed, trustworthy, responsive, and impose no or low cost on us.

    However, to be “…properly informed, trustworthy, responsive…” requires an investment which we are reluctant to make, particularly in the current environment. I’m speculating that the sense-making staffs in a number of companies have been substantially reduced. So have subscriptions.

    This reaction is understandable, but lamentable.

    Perhaps the current condition of the industry can be traced to poor decisions resulting from poor methods using poor data, a situation that maritime media could have helped avoid.

    My mother told me not to put my hand on the hot stove, but I had to find out for myself. Penny wise, pound foolish.


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