April 4, 2016
Returning to work after the long Easter holiday, we kicked off as we usually do with our morning review of the papers and major news sources.
Things were a little different – our stack of morning newspapers was one title short. Not a delivery oversight, but the first week since The Independent shuttered its daily print edition. After 29 and a half years of publication, the current owners have abandoned print in favour of an all-digital business model. Other national newspapers around the world will be watching the Indy with great interest to see if the move actually works, and whether it can be copied and improved upon.
It’s a bold move, and not the first the loss-making paper has taken. For example, it was the first daily broadsheet since the 1970s to switch to tabloid. A move that was soon copied by the equally loss-making The Times, albeit with more commercial success.
The decision to take a near three-decade old newspaper digital-only marks the start of a sea change in established national newspaper publishing. It will alter everything from how advertising campaigns are planned to how stories and authored content are sold in to publications in their all-digital forms.
The business and operating models of national newspaper publishing are transforming rapidly. Web sites, paywalls and digital editions are all being used as ways to generate revenue and engage digitally with readers and advertisers. All are trying to cope with the market realities and changing reading habits of 2016 and beyond. The Times ‘ decision to back away from online breaking news for its paywall web site is another illustration of the media’s changing priorities.
Staff numbers have already been cut considerably to reflect the reduced economic resources the online Indy will have. The revenues are very different, the risks far higher. For example, all ad revenue in digital is linked to traffic, a big departure from print publishing. To work, journalism must now appeal to enough of an audience to move ad inventory in full. Titles will rely more on traffic driving content formats, from a variety of sources including PR. These include listicles, reader surveys, slideshows and other forms of clickbait. Publishing a story because it is the right thing to do might not work as justification if it doesn’t generate enough traffic to pay the person that wrote it.
The closure of the Indy in print is another example of how difficult it is to launch a viable national newspaper, or even a loss-making one. Almost all the UK’s established newspapers have origins in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the forerunner to The Times launched in 1785, The Guardian in 1821. The Daily Express was founded in 1900. Even the forerunner to The Sun was founded in 1912. The Daily Star bucks this trend, launched in 1978 and still going in 2016.
While the old guard keep going, newer entrants to the market largely failed to stick. The ground-breaking Today (1986-1995), Sunday Correspondent (1989-1990), The European(1990-1998), The Post (1988), The Sportsman (2006) are just some examples that failed the test of time and the economic realities of newspaper publishing. There are exceptions to the rule. The i is still going strong and has been sold to Johnston Press for a tidy profit. The Sunday Sport is inexplicably still in existence.
Newsweek tried to go digital in December 2012, only to relaunch its print title 15 months later. However, with the Indy’s daily print circulation prior to closure below 55,000 copies, a rapid print resurrection is unlikely. Its digital move does mean that loss-making competitors such as The Guardian (161,152 circ.) will be considering the future of print in order to maintain long-term existence.
The Guardian is losing over £50 million a year and making cuts, bogged down by plummeting print sales and a large, expensive staff. However, digital revenues last year were £82.1 million, a healthy figure but nowhere near enough to subsidise the print title. However, as a basis to build a digital-only Guardian, it is a position of strength and a far stronger digital starting point than the digital Indy has.
It is highly unlikely we will see another viable national newspaper launched in the UK, US or other major European markets. The economics are too hard to overcome. The survival of the ones we still have will depend on how, or indeed if, we engage commercially with them as they evolve their digital businesses.