The news business is certainly keeping itself busy of late, with barely a day passing without reports of the demise or launch of one title or another. Indeed, there has probably never been a more competitive or fragmented time in news publishing.
Clearly, despite the folding of the Independent, publishers have not given up on print. Indeed, we are seeing renewed energy in the space with Trinity Mirror’s launch of the cut-price, mid-market New Day. True, Trinity Mirror is enticing media agencies by undercutting every other newspaper in the market on ad space, while luring in readers with an ad space to editorial balance tipped well in favour of news. Initially, at least.
Lack of direction
Onlookers would be forgiven for surmising that the situation demonstrates fundamental uncertainty in terms of direction with some print owners closing titles down whilst other launch new ones. Some news brands are also exploring new areas entirely, such as gambling and dating.
Which would lead one to conclude that digital is the obvious outlet for news brands. Yet even here, many publishers are strategically floundering. Some are removing paywalls, some investing more significantly and increasing their digital efforts, others are still struggling for traction: yet numbers are increasing overall. News Corp, for instance, with its launch of Heat Street – a centre-right site headed by former Conservative MP Louise Mensch.
Print, digital or ‘other’?
We must remember that many of the established quality news brands do already have successful ‘other’ entities going on already and those that do inevitably have data. If they can manage that data in the right way and link it up then they have real value. The scale across many of these portfolios is vast and we must remind ourselves that they operate in many different areas. While even the likes of a media titan like Google is restricted to just digital, in their favour established news titles extend their brands across platforms.
The bigger picture is that these incredible, historic and quality news brands are huge machines that need to reach significant financial levels simply in order to function or exist. They know that regardless of whether print is dead, dying or anything else it clearly cannot be what they base their future on. The challenge is that in all other areas - be it digital or ‘other’ - they compete against other players who are already established and successful there and certainly free from the financial constraints of huge business functions existing outside of their specialist area.
How to commercialise quality journalism?
Quality journalism costs money. There is no way around it; this is not user-generated content or titillating list articles. It is not adequate to simply argue that the behemoths demand too much money in order to function, or that they need to run themselves in a completely different way. The alternatives seen so far to position them as suppliers lining the pockets of others; surely this is not a sustainable proposition.
News brands have the product, but nobody is sure how best to package or sell it – and they need to address this before it’s too late. Part of the answer here, at least, will be micropayments. If somebody has the option to read content they want for a minimal amount of money, the charge is unlikely to stop them. And if they build up an affinity for a particular brand through repeatedly doing so, then they will be ever increasingly likely to return.
This, I believe, will be the shop window to lure new readers, and we have already witnessed the success of similar models with popular apps. It’s a sounder way to extract money from people than a one-off subscription fee, and accrued spend will ultimately be much higher over time.
This brings us to quality and whether people will realise too late that this should have been their priority in the face of increased choice and diversification. Brand loyalty also plays an important part here - it’s of note that when Richard Desmond slashed the cost of the Daily Star in half to 20p, neither the Sun nor the Mirror saw sales deplete. Does the quality news audience demonstrate a similar degree of brand loyalty? Readers will need to ask themselves how what they are getting compares to what’s being offered elsewhere, why they are being loyal to the brand. 'What am I getting from this experience?' is an important question in the value exchange.
What next for newspapers?
The challenge is undoubtedly here and now. Some will flounder; others will come out with shiny new profitable entities and models to propel themselves while still retaining their original print element. For some, print will prove fatal – for others, it might spur a birth or rebirth. The shift in the music business to digital has in fact ignited the renaissance of vinyl – could we see the same thing for print?
One thing is for certain: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Those that get it right now (and some will) can be certain of cementing their place in the ever-evolving news-scape and their models will come to lead the ongoing change.
Mark Smith is head of display at Maxus