Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Disappearing into the ether

As an emergency cost-saving measure following some disappointing financial figures, CAMRA have announced that they are not going to send out hard copies of their monthly newspaper What’s Brewing for October and December to members for whom they hold an e-mail address. Not surprisingly, this has reignited the debate about whether such print publications should be phased out in favour of electronic communication. There is a group of “digital zealots” who see printed newspapers and magazines as a relic of the past that should be consigned to history without delay. But, in reality, things are by no means so clear-cut.

For a start, there’s still a substantial number of mainly older people who make no use of the Internet whatsoever, something that is particularly relevant to CAMRA with its ageing membership profile. You can’t simply cut them off and consign them to oblivion. And many others, while they may have an Internet connection and e-mail address, in practice make very little use of it and can’t really be regarded as digitally literate. Sometimes I’ve said in conversation “it’s been all over the Internet”, only for people to reply “sorry, never seen it”. My local CAMRA branch has over 1,500 members, but less than 250 of them have signed up to its e-mail newsgroup, which is about the most basic form of digital engagement imaginable. I’ve read that many people, while regular Internet users, in practice only visit about ten different websites.

People also consume digital and print media in different ways – online, you will tend to head directly for the particular item that interests you, whereas with a physical magazine you are more likely to browse it randomly and find things by chance. For example, I regularly flick through the pages of a newspaper or magazine while eating my breakfast, which I wouldn’t really do with a tablet. This is why a digital facsimile of a print publication is the worst of both worlds, as it fails to reflect the way people digest digital information. Many people who might pick up a copy of What’s Brewing if it’s lying about and read the odd article will never even open the digital one. An effective online publication depends on the constant updating of information and stories, whereas a print one is a snapshot taken at a point in time.

There is still a strong attachment to printed publications, show by the fact that sales of printed books have begun to regain ground against their electronic equivalents. While newspapers continue to record declines in circulation, the print version of the Spectator magazine has recently seen record sales in its 189-year history. A printed book or magazine is an attractive artefact in its own right in a way that a webpage displayed on a screen will never be, especially if it contains illustrations and diagrams rather than just words. And, for many members of organisations of various kinds, not just CAMRA, receiving the official magazine is often the only tangible contact they ever have with it. In a sense, it makes your subs seem just that little bit more worthwhile.

Nowadays, if you have Internet access, you’re unlikely to look at print newspapers or magazines for hard facts such as sports or election results. But the same is not true of comment, analysis and reviews, which often benefit from the more contemplative approach that a physical publication encourages. And you also have to consider how people actually come across the information in the first place. It might make sense for a CAMRA branch to communicate information about meetings to its members electronically. But if it produces a magazine for public consumption, it depends on people picking it up by chance in pubs. If it was converted to a purely digital format, scarcely anyone would read it, and certainly no-one would pay to advertise in it.

It may be that, in the fullness of time, the hard information contained in a publication such as What’s Brewing will entirely migrate online. But it’s essential to proceed very cautiously to avoid alienating people and losing their support. And it’s difficult to say that the more reflective and analytical pieces should be treated the same way, as otherwise they may simply disappear into the ether.

One of the most entertaining features of What’s Brewing is the letters page, where you often see opinions expressed that never seem to be aired in online media. Just a thought, but maybe CAMRA could consider setting up an online forum where these topics could be discussed more fully...

24 comments:

  1. I want two months worth of subs reimbursed to my bank account if that is the case ! I am not responsible for monetary shortfalls within CAMRA - why make me suffer ?

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    1. Don't be so ridiculous. Whilst I disagree with going entirely online, we do need to explore cost cutting options. If we refund everyone two months subs (which is a paltry ~£4 to you but well over £500,000 for CAMRA) we might as well pack up and go home because there won't be a campaign afterwords.

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    2. Why are you (for you must be some K top brass within CAMRA ?),"cost cutting" in the first place ? Are you implying that CAMRA is half a million pounds in the red ?? Now that IS ridiculous !!

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    3. No it isn't ridiculous. When Ned paid has subscription he was told that one of the benefits of member ship was that he would receive a monthly newspaper and a quarterly magazine CAMRA now appear to be reneging on their side of the contract so he should be entitled to compensation

      The CAMRA website is still offering that benefit to new members.

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  2. You had to move quick on this one I think. All members can log into the members area on the website & amend their personal details. If you removed your email address sharpish after getting your last newspaper you're still on paper copies.

    As for the strange do dar.

    More members than ever. All cost less to service than the subs price. Net surplus on each new member. More money grasping festivals than ever. Still can't afford stamps to mail you a monthly catch up. Pathetic. Early sign of an organisation going tits up.

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    1. It does seem to me that conceptually they should aim to fund all day-to-day activities from membership income, which is predictable, and regard beer festival profits, which by their nature are subject to fluctuation, as the icing on the cake.

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  3. I'm puzzled by where the savings are in this, since I always thought that the editorial and set-up costs of a print publication were the most significant element, and running off extra copies was much more marginal - a lot of the costs would still have to be paid in a digital format. Perhaps distribution costs are more of a consideration than I would have thought, although I assume that a lot of these are funded by the advertising leaflets included with each issue. Another assumption is that the firms that pay for their leaflets to be included do so for a reason and might not want to buy space in the paper itself, so savings could be reduced by a loss of revenue. My own experience with digital versions of publications is that it is much easier to flick past the adverts, so it would be logical for advertisers to expect a discount on the rates that apply to a mainly printed version with the same circulation.

    Personally I would look at the viability of the Beer magazine, as it is more of a happy-clappy type publication rather than a serious campaigning product, but not if it does show a surplus after ALL attributable costs. There are some interesting articles in there but they could just as easily be included in the main paper with another four pages added.

    With the Revitalisation Project itself seeming in need of revitalising, it might be sensible to appoint an independent firm of consultants to look into the causes of the financial crisis. The Morning Advertiser implies that under-forecasting of beer festival profits is the issue, but where does the responsibility lie for this?


    I should declare that as a long standing Life Member I am not putting my money on the line each year nowadays, but having been 'active' for quite a few years in the 80s and 90s I am keen to see the organisation persevere.


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    1. I agree about BEER magazine, which I've described before as "superficial gush". It just doesn't represent serious or challenging journalism.

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    2. The cost of servicing life members with monthly newspapers in the absence of any revenue from them is probably also something that needs to be looked at. Extra copies of a newspaper you are printing anyway do cost something: the cost of the paper and postage, which adds up to a tidy sum with 200,000 members.

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    3. But the point about life membership is that you spread the revenue over the average expected lifespan of the members. It shouldn't be just treated as a one-off bonus to the organisation. In fact, I'd say that organisations in fact may benefit from life membership, as the cost is often more than would be justified on a strict actuarial basis.

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    4. And let's be honest, real ale drinkers don't have long lives so you can right most of them off before they hit 60.

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    5. Life Membership was introduced in the mid 80s as one of the responses to a financial crisis that CAMRA was going through at the time. Bringing revenue forward, even if it was kept in the Life Members' Fund and released over a period, was risky but kept the organisation going. The subscription then was a reasonably significant sum relative to my income and I did think hard about whether I was taking too much of a risk, but as an active member I was getting enough out of it to feel that it was worth taking the plunge.

      I haven't kept much from the period, unfortunately for historians, but have found a table showing that membership dropped from 19,200 in 1981 to a low of 16,700 in 1984 when the scheme was introduced. At the time, it wasn't so much a matter of calculating benefits against an actuarial table as whether it was worth doing something to help keep the organisation going.

      Being a Life Member of anything does of course make resigning-in-protest rather ineffectual.

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    6. When I became a Life Member, the cost was 10 times the annual membership free (£70 vs £7) but it is now 18 times (£450 vs £25). However, interest rates are now much lower, and presumably life expectancy, even amongst CAMRA members, has increased. As you say, resigning in protest would become an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face. Had I not been a life member, I might well have not renewed around 2011 when CAMRA went through a period of flirting with making common cause with the anti-drink lobby.

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  4. After receiving my “What’s Brewing” last week, and learning about CAMRA’s cost cutting measures, I was going to write a post of my own. You have saved me the trouble Mudge, and as I agree with virtually all the points you make, I don’t have much extra to add.

    My personal opinion is that “What’s Brewing” has been dumbed down, and cut back to such an extent over the years, that it might as well not exist. Two complete sides of the paper are taken up with publicising branch events, and another full side with local beer festivals.

    This sort of information should be available on-line (it probably is), and whilst I take your point Mudge about older members not having internet access – either through lack of knowledge or, in many cases, through sheer bloody-mindedness, do these individuals bother going along to branch meetings and socials in the first place.

    “Beer Magazine” is a different beast altogether, and it is a publication which CAMRA should make available to a wider audience, rather than trying to kill it off in print form. The way CAMRA’s “opt-out” option is set up, means that if you sign up to “What’s Brewing” in digital form, you automatically receive “Beer” in the same format. I would be quite happy to opt for a digital WB, if I was able to stick with the printed version of “Beer”.

    There have been some good points raised as to how much savings these cuts will actually make. The Campaign’s finances must be pretty dire for the NE to force through these measures, and it would be appropriate for a democratically accountable organisation, such as CAMRA, to provide its members with some answers.


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    1. This was really meant as a post about online vs print publications, rather than CAMRA's finances. But this announcement does smack of being a panic measure and raises a question mark about the financial controls that are in place.

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    2. Check your inbox for a less than convincing explanation, from Colin Valentine, of CAMRA’s current financial difficulties.

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    3. Going by the posted accounts for the last couple of years, most of the losses recently have been due to increasing administration, from £1.5m to £1.8m to £2.1m. I'm assuming this must be including the staffing numbers almost increasing by 50% in the last couple of years.

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  5. the finances, or the implication of them at least, are the bit often overlooked at the AGM, which is when they are discussed, it usually takes one or two of the treasurer role members to ask or highlight the gaps in the presentation that arent immediately obvious to a quick skim through reading. but maybe leave it to discuss till later.

    as for the impact of it, well Im certainly one who prefers to read a physical Whats Brewing or Beer,and would still probably tick all their boxes for digital literacy, so its not just internet refuseniks, its just I find the perfect format for reading in the pub being left for other non members to pick up and read,or reading on a train is a paper based. I dont want to read it digitally as that means probably using data allowances to get it,and then using phone battery, etc etc its harder to skim read. Its just less convenient, so it will probably mean I just wont read them anymore.

    that said Whats Brewing is and has been for a while about as interesting to read as a bar food menu and has about as many pages so maybe its not great loss

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  6. I was surprised by the e-mail reporting CAMRA's financial problems, especially as membership, and therefore subs, are at a record level. I agree about the inconvenience of reading any kind of journal on-line, and I don't see the point of 'Beer'. Although I am quite at home using computers (some of my friends wrongly think I'm tech-savvy just because I have a blog!), I don't have a smart phone and I won't take my laptop on the train just so I can read 'What's Brewing' on the journey. I prefer to slip the paper edition into my pocket.

    CAMRA's existing on-line content isn't always that good. As branch press officer, I sometimes use the press releases as the basis of articles. I usually have to rewrite them in ordinary English as they tend to be turgid, jargon-ridden and repetitive. They'll have to do much better if they want to abandon paper.

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  7. CAMRA's accounts for 2016 can be downloaded from Companies House. They don't look very precarious. https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/01270286/filing-history

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  8. What this tells you is where the priorities are. When some beard festivals sell marginally less pong, what's the first to go?

    Stuff you send the members.

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  9. "My local CAMRA branch has over 1,500 members, but less than 250 of them have signed up to its e-mail newsgroup”... might be a preference not to read 97 messages a year about whether a signature will do in place of a sticker

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  10. A year or so ago, I upgraded to Life Membership and moved house around the same time.

    Without asking me, or even letting me know, they stopped sending me WB. Just stopped it. Zero notice. Zero communication. Not even anything about how to access the electronic version or subscribe to an email service to receive it.

    I consider this absolutely appalling customer service to someone who had been a member for 20+ years and just forked out a fair whack for Life membership!

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