WAN’s Balding exits as newspapers embrace digital future

So goodbye
then Timothy Balding, the venerable leader of the international press body WAN,
who leaves his industry advocate role after 25 years.

Based in Paris, the leader of the World
Association of Newspapers was a well-respected figure and admired ambassador
for newspapers, but in recent years his stance on the impact of digital upon
newspapers had placed him at odds with many commentators, myself included.

Balding was
well-known for his annual state of the nation address presented at WAN’s congresses,
where he would provide a snap shot on the business of newspapers from around
the world.

At the last count, WAN represents some 18,000 newspapers through national
newspaper associations, newspaper companies and individual newspaper executives
in 122 countries.

Balding’s
annual presentation served a vital role that no other organisation was capable
of but, for much of the last decade became most notable for what he failed to say.

Drawing on findings
from the association’s World Press Trends book, Balding painted the picture of a
burgeoning newspaper industry, with print being very much a growth media.

In the face
of sliding circulations, industry cut backs, job losses, restructures and crumbling
ad pages in North America and much of Europe, Balding continued to find the silver-lining.

Things came to a head in
the annus horribilis 2008, when newspapers were among the first against the
wall when the financial crash struck. Earlier that summer, Balding had explained
how the circulation for paid for print dailies was actually up 3% year on year,
while the total number of titles had increased a whopping 27%.

Meanwhile, for those worried
about people reading newspapers online, Balding assured, most of them (52%) were
still spending the same amount of time reading the printed version; while 35% reported
the time they spend with either print or online newspapers had actually
increased.

Unfortunately, WAN’s stats
were a movable feast – with the goalposts literally changing each year as the
organisation found new markets to include in the survey. In 2002, the pages of World
Press Trends detailed information about newspapers in 69 countries. By 2008
this figure has risen to 232.

If the fortunes of those
original 69 countries had continued to be tracked in isolation, ad revenues and
circulations would not have appeared so buoyant.

The outlook was further
skewed by rising print circulations in the huge markets of China, India
and Latin America; meanwhile titles in the
West were being closed, merged or published less frequently at an unprecedented
pace.

As head of WAN, and
therefore industry ambassador, Balding was clearly in a difficult position.
Yes, we need industry advocates and flag bearers, but there is nothing to be
gained from ignoring irrefutable industry trends.

I have no wish to jump on
anyone’s grave, but the fact is WAN’s response to reporters who questioned the
stats was to remove their rights to press copies of the World Press Trends book.

Priced at around €500, this
decision effectively censured any coverage of the global stats altogether; a
dubious move for a press organisation designed to champion press freedom.

Balding’s
rose-tinted musings on the state of the current newspaper business were brought
to an abrupt and very symbolic halt when the WAN congress was cancelled twice
last year, after the host publishers were unable to carry the costs due to
severe revenue drops.

The markets
in question were not the mature markets of the UK,
US or Germany, but rather India and Lebanon.

When it was confirmed last year that WAN would merge with IFRA, the
Germany-based news publishing association, change was most definitely in the
air. Since the early 2000, IFRA has established itself as being a publishing
body that was taking the lead in all things digital.


This week, the newly formed organisation, now with more scope and greater reach than ever, plays host to the World Digital Publishing Conference, where the stated aim is for publishers to “hear, learn and discuss the facts you need to be aware of, facts you need to experiment with, and facts that help you do better better”.


A WAN-IFRA
spokesperson has today confirmed Balding left the organisation last Wednesday

(20 October), and added that his departure is likely to result in a restructure
at the newly formed global association.