The media is under attack, from above and below. Leaders cry ‘fake news’, social media steals revenues, and audiences evolve, turning backs on traditional channels to click, pinch and swipe across a sea of tailored data. Can the maritime media survive in this climate and, hold the front page, do we really need it to? TradeWinds Editor-in-Chief Julian Bray tells the story of his industry.
“All of humanity is in shipping,” asserts Julian Bray from his desk at the TradeWinds editorial base in London. “The tragedies, the triumphs, the highs, the lows, the love, the loss, and, of course, the wrecks – financial or otherwise.”
It is, he implies, a microcosm of the macrocosm that is our world and, as such, “how could you not be fascinated? This is life!”
And TradeWinds, and, its Editor-in-Chief is quick to add, the maritime press in general, has a key role to play in telling that compelling life story.
Bray is discussing his profession ahead of a trip to Nor-Shipping later this year. The respected journalist, who has been at TradeWinds for over a decade (following a further eight years as Editor of Lloyd’s List), will be in Norway for Nor-Shipping week (4 -7 June 2019), as always, because it’s a natural hub for the most important element of the industry: its people.
“Despite the increasing influence of digital technology there remains no substitute for meeting face to face,” he says. “There’s only so much you can gather from sitting in front of a screen. Talking to someone in person, looking into their eyes, delivers a different kind of understanding, helping to build a different kind of relationship. That’s important for business, and vital for journalism.”
Over 30,000 of the industry’s key decision makers know where one another will be in the first week of June every other year, he says, so it’s a natural destination for him and his colleagues – at, as he describes it, “one of our industry’s great gatherings.”
“Shipping has a reputation as a pragmatic business,” Bray states with a smile. “People perpetually focus on the bottom line, the end results, and ‘outsiders’ could be forgiven for thinking that’s all that matters. But at its heart this is an industry with an astonishing sense of community, populated by characters that are private on one level, yet very colourful and engaging on another.”
Within that context Bray likens the maritime press to ‘local newspapers’. Reporting on both the business and social scene, uncovering the stories that matter to the community and, through additional digging (such as unearthing deal details from brokers and sourcing law case insights from lawyers and insurers) delivering added value and understanding. And then there’s the need to report the news some would like left unsaid, holding those in power to account.
“The media that knows the community the best, that invests in dedicated resources and building networks, will deliver the best information, insights and intelligence,” he stresses.
“In doing so we try to paint an accurate picture of what’s actually going on – beyond the rhetoric – and this helps our readers make better, more informed business decisions.
“After all, they’re the important ones,” he imparts, “the ones we’re really serving.”
The reader is king
Shipping executives of a sensitive disposition may want to skip this next section.
Bray is admirably candid when discussing who matters most to TradeWinds and the wider maritime press, and it’s not the people in the paper, it the ones who hold it.
TradeWinds has around 8,000 individual subscribers, with approximately 3million digital page views a month, from about half a million unique users. These are the people paying the bills. These are the customers.
“One of my senior colleagues said to me many years ago – ‘our only friends are our readers’. That may sound brutal,” he admits, “but in fact it’s a simple statement of journalistic intent and integrity.
“We are not here to cater for our contacts and we do not have an agenda. We are not in anyone’s pockets, we are independent. We are here to try and tell the truth and, in doing so, build respect and add value.”
He continues: “To do that we have to do more than just republish a press release. We have to look into stories, put in the reporting legwork, interpret information and communicate issues that matter to our audience in a way that engages them.
“That is good journalism and it still has a very important role to play. But of course, not everyone will like that all the time!”
A force for good
Bray says the maritime media is essential for enforcing increasingly stringent standards of governance – standards that are demanded in, and by, modern society.
“The days of shipping companies being blithely ignorant of corporate and social responsibility are over,” he states.
“They have to conform to standards and be held to account when they don’t. At the same time if regulations or administrative bodies are not fit for purpose then they too should invite scrutiny.
“As should banks, insurers, charterers and all other industry stakeholders. We are here to perform that ‘watchdog’ role.”
Bray says that online is now the preferred platform for breaking news, with print favoured as a channel for more in-depth analysis, for “a longer, slower, rounded read.”
He gives examples with reporting in the aftermath of the El Faro incident and, more recently, the debate on the financial benefits of adopting scrubbers versus other approaches to compliance with the IMO 2020 sulphur cap.
Five years ago, he admits, he wondered if TradeWinds and the industry’s other titles would continue in a print format, now he seems more certain.
“There still seems to be an appetite for print and, speaking from our perspective, as long as there is, we’ll keep feeding that.”
He compares print and digital media to radio and TV: “TV didn’t kill radio,” he smiles, “radio just served, and serves, a different purpose, for different times. They co-exist and are consumed by their audiences according to their taste and individual situation. Why should print and digital be any different?”
As we draw to a close it seems natural to compare print to the ‘face to face meeting’ and digital to the screen served business relationships. Both have their place but the physical contact, the tangible experience, is something to savour, to value – it’s where investments of time and resources deliver extra value.
In that respect the Nor-Shippings of this world will always appeal to Bray and his colleagues.
“The exhibition and formal structure of a Nor-Shipping is one thing,” he concludes, “but the mixing, the networking with the people that matter, is another. It’s important for us to support and contribute to this gathering and make it even stronger. We’d encourage the industry to have the same approach to its maritime press.”