We need to talk about profit

Accounting profit is necessary for publicly traded companies to survive; it's not a sign of extortion.

Profit is seen as a pretty ugly thing for public services to be dealing in. Take the Guardian's Terry Macalister in April (only picked because it's the most recent I can find):

The big six energy suppliers have been accused of "cold-blooded profiteering" after official figures showed they had more than doubled their retail profit margins over the last 18 months and were now earning an average of £95 profit per household on dual-fuel bills.

To be clear, the profit motive is a fair target. There's a real debate to be had over whether or not companies providing public services should be operating under a legal structure which requires them to try to maximise the amount of cash (over the long term) they can return to shareholders, rather than, say, maximising the quality of service provided for a given investment, or providing a set level of service at the minimum cost possible.

But given public services are frequently run by private companies, attacking the amount of profit they actually make is concerning, for one simple reason: money costs money.

It's a basic fact of the economy, one which explains why it takes so long to pay off credit card bills, why the bank pays you if you've got a savings account, and why Greece is finding things tricky at the moment.

But while we're all familiar with debt finance – the act of borrowing a sum, and then paying it back with interest – corporations have an alternative way of paying for the money they need: equity finance. Rather than paying interest on top of borrowed cash, they return a share of the money they make with their loans to the people who loaned to them in the first place.

That money being returned – the equivalent of the interest which we all have experience paying – is profit.

If companies don't earn some profit, then the shareholders are likely to cash out, safe in the knowledge that they can earn more by putting their money elsewhere – maybe by buying shares in another company, or putting it in a high interest savings account. The amount of profit that companies have to earn to stop this happening will vary based on the perceived riskiness of investing in them, as well as the value of investments elsewhere, and is known as the "cost of capital".

Power companies need to be able to make investments, frequently valued in the billions of pounds (Macalister quotes one industry analyst who estimates £50bn is needed just to hook up new gas supplies). It's only by making profit today – that is, by rewarding the shareholders who bought in to the companies before – that they can ensure that they have enough funding to carry on paying for investments tomorrow.

None of this is to say that there can't be such a thing as "too much" profit; if Thames Water were to suddenly make Apple-sized margins, we could be pretty sure that they were overcharging or underinvesting. But simply making accounting profit, even at the same time as pleading penury and raising prices, is not a sign of underhandedness. It's just a sign of a business working as normal.

Companies which deliberately and continually make no profit do exist. But they aren't traded on the open market, and have no access to equity finance. That's fine for some, but worrisome if they suddenly need to find large amounts of cash to invest – or to stave off the creditors.

Perhaps public services should be run as non-profits, or not be run privately at all; but if they are, attacking them for making profit is foolish.

Hinckley Point nuclear power station. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Will Ireland
Show Hide image

Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”