Crain's was maybe a small Manchester newspaper. But the issues that forced its closure are a microcosm of the media market generally. We look at the lessons that might be learned.
When Crain's arrived commentators lauded the paper’s spiky journalism but few advertisers welcomed its no-nonsense sales stance. It refused to negotiate on price, an American approach alien to most Manchester media buyers.
Its defiant publisher Arthur Porter told The Drum in February 2008: “I think we have given them [the advertisers] a shock. They are expecting special deals, but there are none on offer...
“Some buyers expect me to be sitting here at 6pm on a Friday waiting for their call to find out what I would be prepared to do for £2k. But I am not here at that time on a Friday. I have gone home.”
Its early issues are as memorable for their dearth of advertising as they are for their news stories; the 21 January 2008 copy did not contain a single paid-for ad. Yesterday’s statement from editor-in-chief Chris Crain - blaming the closure on “limited support from key advertising sectors” - suggests that a couple of years on the advertising picture never improved to the extent it should have done as the paper established itself.
"They never endeared themselves to the advertising community right from the outset," says Stuart Bell, a director at Manchester media buyer Feather Brooksbank. "It was a very confrontational approach and there were quite a lot of high-profile fall-outs."
Crain’s had an enviable staff of high-calibre journalists - the likes of Steve Brauner, Michael Fahy and Simon Binns - and a stunning office high on the twenty second floor of City Tower, overlooking Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens. But though Crain's investment in journalism and its surrounds were impressive, combine this outlay, its printing costs and its obvious shortage of advertising revenue, and you can see the challenges Crain’s faced compared with its…
Manchester is a "crowded market", says Bell. Almost a year after Crain’s arrival, popular Yorkshire website TheBusinessDesk launched a north west edition, offering a free daily e-newsletter, and the Manchester Evening News was giving away its papers for free. They were both offering daily business news, while Crain’s was publishing the best of its material once a week. The weekly paper was sandwiched in between these dailies and the established monthlies Insider and EN. Although Crain’s website was updated with some stories daily, many readers were locked out because of its…
This is not to say paywalls do not or cannot work. The greatest paywall experiment of them all, that of the Times, is happening right now and we all eagerly await the results. But given that Crain’s only had a print circulation of 11,000, the website could have opened up the paper to so many more potential readers and subscribers had most of its web content not been kept hidden away for subscribers only.
It’s easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but launching a business paper on the eve of the worst financial crisis in living memory gave Crain’s a mountain to climb. Ultimately, though, even if this were unforeseen bad luck rather than bad planning, the main reason behind Crain’s closure is that explained at the top of this page: however good its product, it simply didn’t entice enough advertisers.
An uncompromising sales style did not immediately find favour with Manchester advertisers and as the recession brought about tighter budgets the challenge of winning over advertisers facing their own business battles became ever tougher.
In the circumstances, it seems Crain’s team were doing an admirable job. Chris Crain was quick to credit the sales force for their efforts in trying circumstances, saying: “In a recessionary environment that withered marketing budgets around the globe, Associate Publisher Kathryn Toledano and her sales team managed to book 130 different advertisers into the publication.”
Crain’s subscribers, and the many admirers of the paper’s journalism who are making their voices heard on Twitter, will lament that they could not attract more.