Mobile navigation


The demise of the ‘fork-stick runner’ (or the end of publishing as we know it)

Christopher Collins lays some of the blame for publishing's current problems at the feet of "risk-averse" bureaucrats and the accounting fraternity.

By Christopher Collins

An ‘Old Africa Hand’ once told me, over a beer in downtown Jo’burg, his theory of what brought the downfall of the British Empire. "The telegraph", he said.

My initial thought was that this was a little harsh on a newspaper institution. But, of course, he didn’t mean the establishment British daily, what he meant was ‘communication’ or at least ‘poor communication’.

And his theory went like this

In the early part of the 19th Century, the British Empire was founded, or at least flourished, on the entrepreneurial spirit of a few brave men. Risk takers and decision makers. They had to be. They were thousands of miles from home, often in dangerous areas with little support to hand. Communications were difficult and slow and there was little point in waiting for orders or instructions from afar. They had to act and act fast, and they did.

Of course, ultimately they had to inform their masters, or at least go through the motions of seeking guidance. But this involved writing letters and sending them to London often in the forked sticks of the ‘fork-stick runners’, who departing from these lonely outposts, waded across crocodile-infested rivers with the letters held high and dry, made their way to the coast of East or West Africa or India or wherever. On arrival at some port the letters were placed in the safe hands of a naval captain who would dutifully and slowly make his way to Tilbury or Liverpool or Southampton.

Then, some six months after the letter was scribed, outlining some minor or major incident or problem in some forgotten part of the world, a Whitehall mandarin would ponder its contents before penning some instructions and thus beginning, this time in reverse, the same slow process.

A full year or more would have passed before our entrepreneur, decision maker, would receive the instructions that he neither wished to receive nor intended to follow. Indeed, being a decision maker, he had already, following the departure of the ‘fork-stick runner’ embarked on a course of action, based upon his knowledge and instincts, aimed at remedying the situation, whatever it was.

All of this, of course, helped to make the British Empire great. Decisions were taken by men of action and, by the same token, the bureaucrats thousands of miles away were kept happy in the belief that their advice was not only being sought but also acted upon.

And then the world changed

Telegraph poles, with wires strung between then, started to emanate from London and gradually spread across the great plains of Africa and further beyond.

Now, our decision makers, previously some twelve months (in time) from London’s interference were only electronic seconds away. Not only were the ‘fork-stick runners’ lying idle but, worse, the paper pushers’ moment had arrived. They were now going to be listened to and their decisions heeded!

Our brave few had been usurped by the deskbound many, who at last had a purpose. Whitehall would now decide and the man on the spot would merely implement. The days of the incisive ‘doer’ were at an end. The Empire now sought bureaucrats not buccaneers and its end was in sight.

Well, that was the theory and, if slightly stretched, I think it has some merit.

So how does this theory relate to our industry today? What are the parallels between the demise of an Empire and the business of producing newspapers and magazines? The key lies with communication or, more specifically, good communication.

It may be a bit extreme to say that we are seeing the demise of newspapers and magazines in this country, yet it is well documented that circulations are in general decline and advertising revenues are under pressure.

And, as is usual with downward trends, there is no single simple reason for this. Indeed there are multiple and complex factors involved. But one thing is certain: newspapers and magazines have, in some cases individually, and most certainly collectively contributed in part to the problems they now face.

One way in which this has happened could be called ‘dumbing down’. This has been brought about, in part, by publishers searching for and producing formulaic type publications that look, feel and read almost identically to their competitors and neighbours on the newsstand. Take a look at the front covers of magazines in any newsagent in the country and try to differentiate between some of the products on sale. But the issue is more serious than that. Often the content within magazines, and newspapers appears almost identical.

Why has this happened?

Well, it has a lot to do with what could be described as ‘sameness’ (meaning; ‘in an identical manner’).

In a publishing sense, sameness could be described as producing a publication that challenges little, offends nobody but appeals to the common-denominator. If a competitor does something new or different, follow suit. If a title has a popular opinion, reflect it. If a magazine has a particular style, match it. After all, it would be terrible to be left out and much worse to take a risk.

As with the Empire analogy, the risk-averse bureaucrats and the accounting fraternity have taken over.

There are, of course, publishers and publications out there that challenge the accepted norm and stretch the boundaries, but they are in the minority. It seems that ‘me-too’ is currently the popular strategy.

And where does this leave the reader? It could be argued that the reader doesn’t have to continue to read. He or she can always put the publication down, or bin it, or look for an alternative.

But this is the crux of the matter. Where do you go if there isn’t an alternative or, more likely, any alternatives will look, feel and read the same. The answer is that the reader becomes an ex-reader or even more likely a non-reader.

This is what has happened time and again in recent years and, as many publishers have discovered to their cost, when a reader is gone he or she is often gone forever. Just like the British Empire.