Does news have to be dumbed down to be profit making in the digital age?

The finance people in Fleet Street will be looking at the Daily Mail & General Trust with envy.

This week Mail Online showed how well it has done with the growth in digital revenues offsetting the loss in print.

The model it uses is the one favoured by the Guardian: no paywall, pulling in advertising by the sheer numbers of unique readers.

Stephen Daintith, the finance director of DMGT, was cautiously optimistic that the consumer division of what used to be Associated Newspapers would this year lift net advertising revenues for the first time since the internet started to undermine the traditional newspaper model.

When delivering the company results he added: "This is the moment that most journalists have been waiting for, which is when a decline in print advertising is matched by growth in digital."

To use an old print phrase: "Up to a point, Lord Copper."

Of course, it's great news that Mail Online increased revenues by 48 per cent to £41m for the year to September 30. Journalists will be delighted that on Wednesday it had a record 12.5 million unique readers.

Analysts suggested the business was reaching a turning point. One said: "What you are looking at is the potential for a sustainable business for a newspaper on an advertising-only model."

But what most journalists recognise is that Mail Online is unique. It has carved out a niche for itself and made it very different. It is not even the Daily Mail, its big, but getting smaller, brother.

Mail Online is an obvious success and the beleaguered media industry should celebrate its achievement but can anyone match it, or would they want to, using the same mixture of Mail beliefs, tabloid prurience and show business glitz? It is never the lowest common denominator but sometimes gets pretty close. Remember the picture of Ralph Miliband's gravestone and the offensive caption?

At the moment Mail Online, the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Daily Star, the Independent and the Guardian are free. The Times, the Sun and FT have paywalls and the Daily Telegraph has a hybrid system to drag in potential paying readers.

The paywall papers are a long way from even breaking even on their digital quest and the free news, excepting Mail Online, are also far from being successful.

So what price success? Does news have to be dumbed down to be profit making in the digital age? Looking at the Daily Mail the easy answer is yes. The Times seems to have recognised this and to the unease of some of its staff the decision making on news is nodding its head at some of the easy hits.

This is also evidenced by readers' comment on some of the stories which ask: "Why is the Times covering this?"

At the Guardian I can imagine them coveting the success of Mail Online, because its very structure was first thought of in Farringdon Road and Kings Place, but shuddering at the thought of relaxing its editorial integrity.

The Guardian's intention is to make it the most-read liberal media outlet in the world. It opened a US office well before Mail Online. It recognised that mass unique readers were needed to sell advertising. Being first has not made it any money.

A few years ago Rupert Murdoch predicted that there would be fewer Fleet Street titles. He made his forecast before online became the norm and based on who had the money to ride out the falls in circulation and be the last men standing.

Could his prediction be right for the wrong reasons or will most look at Mail Online and become more "accessible?"

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror


Chris Boffey

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