Why 2010 May Be The Year Of The Phoenix

Let’s call a spade a spade – 2009 was a shitty year. News publishers axed thousands of staff, some magazines folded altogether, VOD was pegged back by a perverse Kangaroo ruling and frightened companies rounded on the BBC before undoing a decade-long strategy of free by putting a price on themselves. Good riddance to these troublesome 12 months.

Now, do we owe it to ourselves to look to 2010 with at least a degree of optimism? From this scorched earth, things can only get better, right? Here are some reasons to start smiling again…

Forecasts from the big agencies suggest the advertising freefall has hit the bottom. True, based on earlier forecasts, companies that made cuts this time last year may not have expected to have to make successive new redundancy rounds throughout this year – but from econo-doomsayer Martin Sorrell’s WPP stable, GroupM’s forecast of a less worse year is at least something.

The real sign of stability comes in the flattening out of newspapers’ projected losses in to only modest year-on-year declines, suggesting publishers – after a brutal year of scaling back and difficult “goodbyes” – can at least begin to live within their means. Barring an economic curveball in the new year, we hope the downsizing will have eased by Q2, when media operators wipe the sweat from their brows and begin to recognise they have cut their cloth accordingly.

Nevermind the downsizing; for some, 2010 will present genuine opportunities. Investors keep saying it like a mantra – the best startup clarity comes after a crash. Indeed, in the embers of the meltdown, while some turn to consultancy, others get entrepreneurial. As Rafat did in 2002, many independent publishers will step up to the plate, grasping the circumstances that still exist in times of disruption to create new brands for audiences increasingly unserved by distracted power players…

As old skool local newspapers continue to collapse from audience migration and under the weight of their own resource-dependence, indie local online news sites (some of them run by the very staff dispensed with by larger publishers) will make “hyperlocal” the new black next year, each vying to fill the gap found between those dead trees.

But hyperlocal’s first wave (circa 2005) failed to make any real impact and budding proprietors with delusions of saving local news shouldn’t kid themselves there’s gold in these here hills – unless the upstarts can either network themselves in to an entity of any scale or ally themselves with the Big Media against which they set themselves, hyperlocal will be a worthy sideline with small pickings.

It’s higher up the food chain where things could get interesting. The government’s own proposals for propping up the fourth estate offer the opportunity for eclectic, innovative independently-funded multimedia news consortia. This will surface some strange bedfellows in 2010, as publishing and broadcasting incumbents tag-team for what could amount to a journalism bailout.

We’re crossing our fingers that the proposal makes good on Lord Carter’s intention to create an ITV (LSE: ITV) regions replacement with “multi-media distribution and syndication” at its heart – but that may depend either on the idea making it through parliament before an election, or on a new government keeping the bill close to its heart. If not, this phoenix may not fly.