Maritime media: part of our legacy

We need to work hard to reverse the climate of journalistic neglect

Maritime Media Covers

Michael Grey considers the present and future roles of the UK’s diverse maritime media

Even in 2011 the United Kingdom retains a large and diverse maritime media, an astonishing range of publications of every kind, catering for every niche and speciality within the wonderful world of shipping and the sea.

Should this surprise us? Considering that English is the world’s maritime language, and that this country was once confidently described as a ‘maritime nation’, we might perhaps consider that the maritime media forms part of our ‘legacy’ from this more buoyant past. Legacy is important and should not be discounted – goodness, look at the furore over the requirements for a ‘legacy’ from next year’s Olympic Games in London! But we might also wish that the public understanding of the importance of the sea and ships to these islands, which could once have been taken for granted, had lived on. Alas, such understanding is now a minority pursuit, despite the plethora of information provided by our specialist media.

Forgivable ignorance?

Once again, this should be unsurprising at the end of an era which has seen the Merchant Navy decimated and depopulated, the Royal Navy reduced to a shadow barely capable of projecting meaningful power, and the UK’s shipbuilding capabilities, in living memory the world’s most dominant, demolished, but for a few specialist naval constructors. True, there is a buoyant maritime leisure sector, commercial expertise of every kind lives on, and the UK retains a useful maritime technology and marine equipment sector with a global reputation. But just as shipping has become the most international of industries, the survival of the maritime press, which was once focused upon all that went on in this country, depends on its adoption of a global perspective.

It is important that we still have a busy, questing and competitive maritime press, albeit composed of this legacy of specialist and niche publications. One might scrutinise the general media for any hints that the UK is an island nation, with 90% of its trade still carried by sea. The men or women on those Clapham omnibuses might be forgiven for the ignorance they exhibit about the UK’s maritime heritage. They have every reason to consider that shipping is no longer important to this nation. From where are they to obtain any information to the contrary, when there are no well-informed journalists in the general media? Thus it is to the immense credit of the Maritime Foundation that it has in recent years attempted to reverse this climate of journalistic neglect, through the now well-established Maritime Media Awards. It may, however, take a little longer to succeed. So let’s hear it for the specialist press!

A varied specialist press We are fortunate in this country that we have such variety in the available media, whether it is provided by commercial publishers or by professional institutions, in the shape of newspapers, journals, books and magazines, all dedicated to a specialist, well-identified readership. Whether financed by subscriptions, advertising revenue or membership fees, they provide a window into every part of the maritime world.

To survive in these changing times, the maritime press has had to adapt. It serves an international clientele, and its perspectives have to range right across the world, wherever maritime activity is taking place. It is in the business of providing information, and its journalists have to range more widely than ever before, to seek out the news and detect the developing trends. It is not cheap, and it is always challenging, to provide, in daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly form, the diet required by the well-informed maritime specialist.

New media, new demands

We also live in an age where, arguably, there is more information flying around than ever before. The reader is spoilt for choice! To the products of the print journalists and publishers are now added those of the ‘citizen journalists’ – the blogs, websites, bulletins, briefings and the like – whizzing around the ether and providing a sometimes confusing profusion of news and noise. The 24-hour news agenda is intruding into the rather more pedestrian world hitherto dictated by the complexities of hard-copy distribution. There is no turning back this clock, and the maritime media must adapt to the contemporary demands, if it is to survive and prosper.

So the demands upon the maritime publisher, whether in shipping or warships, port technology or business publishing, are increasing. Specialist publishing demands specialised journalists with a ‘feel’ for their subject and an understanding of sometimes highly technical concepts. Authenticity is all in a world where there will be no shortage of experts to point out any errors! There must also be enthusiasm for the subject matter, because this will always shine through the writing, and a willingness to stay up to date with the constant changes in the industry. In the UK we are very lucky to have so many journalists willing and able to fulfil these demanding criteria in every story they write.

Established values

But despite the fast-changing times and the latest methods of transmitting the information, there remain certain absolutes about a successful maritime industry publication. For a start, its publishers must not lose sight of the basic reasons why people part with their hard-earned money to read it. Regardless of whether it is a daily newspaper catering for the maritime business community, a technical monthly read chiefly by marine engineers or technologists, or even an enthusiasts’ journal available on the newsstands, there are requirements that all publications must fulfil.

People will read ‘their’ publications for a number of reasons. They will read to widen their horizons, conscious of the fact that a maritime industry person who is informed only about his or her own company, or particular specialist field, will have a very restricted horizon. They will read to obtain that one useful nugget of information that will make any expenditure in time or money instantly worthwhile, providing a commercial lead, inspiring that money-making idea.

They will read to become better informed as professionals, experts or specialists in a global industry. Good professionals have a natural curiosity, wanting to know what is going on in the wider world, or in their own specialist niche. They may regard their reading of professional journals or shipping newspapers as ongoing education or part of life-long learning. They will read to avoid becoming stuck in a rut, or left behind as a fast-moving industry develops. The maritime press, in its many forms, will help them fulfil all these needs. Hopefully, it might also provide some enjoyment and entertainment.

Intangible skills, valuable assets

The maritime industry may be global, but it has something of a ‘family’ atmosphere, and it is not so huge that it becomes anonymous. It has personalities, and is often described as a ‘people’ industry. The maritime press also provides a vehicle whereby people can keep in touch with people, and affords an opportunity for gossip and what is described these days as ‘networking’. Maritime people are interested in other maritime folk. They like to see ideas circulating. They value their publications for the weight they can sometime bring to arguments, they appreciate it when maritime media can embrace their causes, and their campaigns, whether it is in stressing the importance of the industry, or a particular sector, to regulators, or governments, or ministers who need to be apprised of what the industry thinks is important.

There is thus a sort of ‘ownership’ within the industry of the publications it considers important, and which it supports. The intangible skills of journalists and publishers in this field remain a most valuable Maritime asset for the UK.