Greg Hadfield is living proof that someone steeped in print can thrive online. With a CV that includes the Wakefield Express and Soccernet, Greg is uniquely well positioned to comment on the future of newspapers. Ray Snoddy spoke to Greg about recent moves, his print past and his, and our, digital future.
As a spat, it barely registered on the Richter scale, even within the narrow confines of the media village.
Greg Hadfield was leaving his job as head of digital development at the Telegraph Media Group and was becoming director of strategic projects at Cogapp, a small Brighton-based creative digital agency.
The story about the relatively modest career move of the former Sunday Times news editor was picked up for two reasons.
Hadfield had been one of the first Fleet Street journalists to realise the potential of the web and, with the help of his 12-year-old son Tom created Soccernet – a business later bought by ESPN/Disney for £25 million.
The other was that while talking to journalism students at London’s City University, Hadfield had mentioned his new role and was reported as saying he believed newspapers had no future. That was obviously why he was leaving his job in a big, national media group like the Telegraph.
A cynical twitterer suggested that there was often a correlation between journalists announcing that newspapers were finished and the non-renewal of their contracts.
A tiny row was up and running but it ended almost as soon as it began. TMG issued a statement that Hadfield’s departure had been mutually agreed at the end of his contract and the journalist himself denied ever having said that newspapers had no future.
Later, in one of the recesses of the MediaGuardian website, Hadfield explained himself more fully on what lay behind his decision and on the challenges facing the traditional press.
“No longer can newspapers survive by publishing at their readers, by talking down to them, by controlling what can, and can’t, be written or said. In future, they will have to provide - and share, not ‘own’- the online environment in which they can meet the needs of individual members of their community. They have to be part of social media not monolithic media,” wrote Hadfield.
If he is critical of the speed at which “monolithic media” is moving to embrace the new world – and he is - the criticism still comes from a fully-paid up journalist, even if Hadfield no longer describes himself as one.
More than half his 30-year career was spent in the traditional newspaper business, complete with a more than respectable number of awards and achievements before moving on to become a millionaire digital entrepreneur.
In many ways, the first part of 53-year-old Greg Hadfield’s career is the archetypical newspaper story – or at least it describes how things used to be.
Bright grammar school boy from Barnsley goes to Oxford to read classics then becomes a reporter on the Wakefield Express.
He still has a copy of his first story – a page lead with the headline: “Mums Demand Pelican Crossing.”
Then there was a Provincial Journalist of the Year award at Brian MacArthur’s Western Morning News for tracking down and interviewing veterans of the Christmas Island nuclear tests.
He followed MacArthur to the Today newspaper, and after six years on the Sunday Times was struck by “voluntary” redundancy. Later Hadfield worked as an investigative reporter at both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, picking up two commendations as Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards.
So far so worthy, so expected.
But there were a couple of things that stood out.
At the Sunday Times, Hadfield was involved in producing exam league tables for state schools – a hugely controversial exercise, even though the Daily Telegraph had already provided such a service for public schools.
In the early 1990s, he then produced a Sunday Times state school guide for publishers Bloomsbury working at home on his IBM 286 personal computer.
“I am not a techie but I was certainly one of the first Fleet Street journalists to have my own computer,” says Hadfield who had a domestic online connection when there were less than 40,000 of them in the country.
His son Tom spent a lot of time on that computer when his father was at work.
As Hadfield lay in the bath one Sunday morning, Tom, aged 11, explained his idea for Soccernet. The lad had been taking football scores from the television set in the living room and putting them on the web for far-flung fans.
At the Mail, commercial director Guy Zitter was persuaded to give the Hadfields access to all the paper’s football reports news, and gossip as long as it wouldn’t cost Associated anything and it wouldn’t affect Hadfield’s day job.
Associated made a killing from the sale of Soccernet and Hadfield was happy too – his mortgage was paid off and there was a six figure sum involved.
The former education correspondent made much more money from his second venture, Schoolsnet, because he owned half of it. It was sold to Hotcourses, the UK’s biggest publisher of retail guides to courses.
The one that got away
Hadfield nearly repeated his success in social networking when he spotted the arrival of Facebook in May 2005 when visiting his son, who by then had gone to study at Harvard.
“I discovered Facebook before it had left Harvard Yard. It had just happened as Tom got there,” says Hadfield who set up a similar online network for students in the UK, although it never quite took off.
“I took it round the media, including old friends at Associated. I said, you didn’t get Soccernet in 1995 but will you get social networking in 2005. They almost did but I got bored in the end. Maybe the moment had come and gone,” Hadfield explained.
But overall, what has Hadfield learnt from his career in old and new media, including his year as head of digital development at the Telegraph Media Group? And what must the traditional media do now if they are indeed to have a future?
The rules of the game, he believes, are by now quite clear.
“As head of digital development (TMG), I perceived my role as somehow trying to imbue the organisation with the entrepreneurial, collegiate, creative, integrated way of doing things while recognising that you cannot be disruptive. The point is integration. The point is permanent evolution,” says Hadfield. He enjoyed his time at the Telegraph but hints there are too many meetings for his taste.
He notes wryly that there were 12 glass-walled meeting rooms with big tables in the Telegraph’s “fantastic” offices in Victoria with a schedule for every hour of every day.
With digital, Hadfield believes, it is vital to get stuff out there quickly and then listen to users to see how they react, and learn from that listening.
Publishers should focus on what they are “best of breed at” – journalism, quality news, comment, analysis, content and apply the same high standards to digital.
“Can anyone put their hand on their heart and say that what they are doing digitally is best of breed in the digital sphere. I think that it is pretty obviously not,” argues Hadfield.
Then there is what he calls the “talent pool problem”. Once, the national newspapers were able to fish routinely for talent in the local and regional press, to find people like Hadfield. It’s not so clear-cut any more.
Publishers need to have good relationships with the journalism colleges and have proper graduate training schemes.
“Newspapers can’t be incubators, they can’t be venture capitalists, they can’t be private equity vehicles but what they can do is take in young talent,” he says.
The question then becomes what they then do with it.
“There is no point in just sucking in keyboard monkeys who are at the bottom of the heap but who actually know far more about the web and the internet, how Twitter works and the importance of blogging than those in charge,” he says.
Search for business models
On top of all of that is the key question of finding workable business models.
On linguistic grounds, Hadfield dislikes talk of paywalls. They give the impression of excluding and imprisoning. He prefers to talk about thresholds and has clear ideas on what newspapers should do to be able to set thresholds that might earn some money.
Newspapers have been poor, he believes, in getting to know their readers and what their interests are.
Despite being a Telegraph reader for more than twenty years, he says they still don’t know “a Greg Hadfield BN1 6NF, Manchester United fan with two kids at state schools.”
As a keen traveller, he does not just want travel supplements; he wants a “digital concierge” travel service from a brand he trusts.
Hadfield explains he always reads Henry Winter’s reports on Manchester United but would not pay for them alone.
“But I will pay for that as part of a bundle of premium services and content addressed to my needs and interests so long as someone asked me what my interests are,” says Hadfield.
Will his move to Cogapp, whose specialisms include providing touch screens and software for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, closer to home, the Manchester United museum, finally take Hadfield away from newspapers again?
Certainly not. He hopes from his new perch at Cogapp to help newspapers make a successful transition to the next wave of digital information coming down the line – the release of more and more public data, a cause championed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the worldwide web.
“Newspapers can position themselves as the heart of a community of informed, active citizens and provide the environment in which those citizens can hold the democratic process to account.” says Hadfield.
“They can do that by the visualisation, interpreting and reporting of all this public data that is going to come flooding out at the local as well as the national level,” he added.
But then there is “the semantic web” to consider.
Hadfield believes that media owners should now be investing serious resources in the semantic web.
Sir Tim believes that, in the semantic web, computers will finally become “intelligent agents” capable of analysing all the data on the web and handling all the content, links and transactions between people and computers.
“It will take five years and Fleet Street will be talking about it in five years – if Fleet Street is still around,” comments Greg Hadfield.