Who wants today’s newspapers? FT chief John Ridding on why print still has a future

Ten years ago at a media investment conference in New York I was asked if print newspapers would still be around in 10 years as a significant format. Digital delivery was developing fast, with the disruptors, led by Google and Facebook, seizing share of audience at an accelerating pace. White flags were being readied to hoist above many traditional print mastheads. I replied: “Yes, for sure,” and was greeted with scepticism by the analysts who had studied the downward charts in print circulation and advertising, extended the trends to zero and placed me in the camp of the ‘flat earthers’ who didn’t ‘get’ the world of change and pain being visited on established titles.

Ten years on, I’d still say yes to the same question. And I’d point to the FT’s transformation as part of the evidence. The FT did ‘get’ the world of change, and now has more paid-for readers than at any other period of its 129 year-history. It is true that most of those subscribers are now digital, that the FT has become a majority digital business, and that we expect future growth to be driven by mobile and new features from video to interactive graphics. But an equally important truth is the FT’s print circulation is now profitable, before advertising, with engaged and loyal readers.

The FT is in many ways different to other titles, and specialist in its focus on global business. But it needn’t be a special case. Broader trends, along with some eclectic and surprising pundits – including the 1979 one-hit wonders The Buggles and Donald Rumsfeld (stay with me) – support the case for broader resilience and a rational transition to a mixed model of news delivery.

First, as with the New York analysts, it is easy, tempting and generally wrong simply to extend trends to the end of the line and to assume new technologies herald the end of the old. In 1922, for instance, Radio News magazine said radio would kill the newspaper industry. “Seated comfortably in the club car of the 21st Century Flyer… the president of the Ultra National Bank removes a small rubber disk from his vest pocket and places it over his ear”, imagined the leading radio journal of its day. “A moment hence, he will receive by radiophone the financial news of the world”, read the confident forecast of print decline. I’m on a plane as I write this – there is plenty of print being read, but not so many small rubber disks relaying the world’s financial news.

Radio itself was then sentenced to decline and demise with the advent of TV. But, as the Buggles sang in Video Killed The Radio Star, radio had and retains attributes which have ensured its survival. “In my mind, and in my car” goes the first verse, referencing the intimacy of the radio experience. Indeed, as Nielsen reports, radio still reaches more Americans each week than any other channel.

If a technology or platform has unique attributes and the right business model they have the means to survive and succeed, and to reposition themselves profitably on the ever-expanding spectrum of formats and channels.

Newspapers do have unique attributes. At a time of limitless information and limited time, they provide the valuable service of selection and judgment for readers and an informed hierarchy of importance. They also enable the satisfaction of completion, a contrast with the wormholes of the web. They are an attractive format for advertisements, with tactile and visual appeal, part of the reason why luxury advertising in print has held up so well. And while personalisation is an obviously powerful driver of engagement with audiences, serendipity should not be understated. As Donald Rumsfeld said famously, albeit on another topic, “There are things we know that we know… There are known unknowns… But there are also unknown unknowns”. Those things you don’t know that you don’t know, what expert editors believe is important, or what appears by coincidence alongside the article you are reading, can be a pleasing surprise and an important stimulus.

These factors help explain the relative resilience of print circulation. Decline is real, but it isn’t as drastic as is often portrayed. As the Pew Research Center wrote in its 2016 report, US newspaper circulation declined for the second consecutive year in 2015 but was relatively stable over the decade – “a 1.1% drop in 10 years: hardly disastrous”. Likewise, national readership data from Nielsen Scarborough showed 51% of those who consume a newspaper read it exclusively in print (Nielsen Scarborough 2015).

What is drastic, and damaging, is the decline in print advertising. In the US, newspaper advertising spend fell $8.6bn in five years, from $25bn in 2009 to $16.4bn dollars in 2014. In the UK, the decline was from £2.9bn in 2011 to £1.9bn in 2015. In continental Europe, the trend is similarly unfriendly. These are big falls. And they go straight to the bottom line. Unsurprisingly, they have caused casualties, alarm and predictions of the endgame at the hands of disruption and the new digital giants who have combined scale with audience and data smarts to awesome effect.

Blaming Google and Facebook for print's woes is easy, but simplistic

But hold the obituaries page. The challenge posed by print advertising decline and the excessive dependence on advertising it reflects is a problem, to a large extent, of publishers’ own making. And it has been exacerbated by their own response to the structural decline in this revenue stream. Simply blaming Google and Facebook is easy, but simplistic. For too long, newspaper publishers emphasised reach at the expense of return, and treated circulation as a loss-leader for advertising. This wasn’t just a business model – albeit deeply flawed – it also played to the egos of proprietors and newsrooms, seeking to reach and influence as many as possible. ABCs, a flawed measure for a flawed model were the currency of success, ignoring the quality, yield or profitability of circulation.

That was bad enough. Worse still, when advertising started to decline in the face of structural and cyclical challenges, the response was often to double down on volumes, through price wars and loss-making bulk to fight the ebbing tide. And for bad measure, a parallel line of defence was to cut newsroom costs – reducing quality and circulation. So the death spiral spins.

Implicit in this narrative and crucial to reversing the downward spiral, the format can and must be separated from the revenue model. Just because advertising has been a disproportionately dominant element in the revenue model of newspapers doesn’t mean a decline spells doom. If publishers pivot and re-think the business approach they can find a more secure and sustainable path. That has been the experience of the FT. We took two big and critical decisions in 2007 – to develop a paid-for metered model online and to raise steadily and significantly the price of the newspaper. It had been stuck at £1 for five years. In January 2008 the price increases started, rising to £1.50 for the weekday edition and now standing at £2.70. The Weekend FT has just risen to £3.80. Alongside the price rises we took out bulk and low-yielding circulation and closed marginal print sites. The result was £30m of net costs (aka loss) in print and distribution was transformed by 2012 into a profit – albeit small. Crucially, though, it showed the newspaper could stand on its own two feet.

Importantly, our path to print profitability reflected a pragmatic as opposed to doctrinaire commitment to newspapers. We are very much channel agnostic. Having started as a print journalist, I do have an emotional attachment to newspapers. Some ink will always linger in the veins of print people. But ultimately the FT strategy is led by its readers. If they don’t want print, we won’t deliver it. The fact is, they do. And they do so as part of a portfolio of formats – perhaps a digital summary when they wake, the newspaper over coffee or at the weekend, desktop on arrival at work, e-mail alerts through the day, video when on a mobile device.

Not losing money on print is obviously good for business. But there are additional benefits. It re-establishes the rightful order for an independent media. To summarise the late, great Henry Luce, the primary relationship of a newspaper should be with its readers, not its advertisers. Hard-headed Mad Men and Women get this, too. Proof of quality circulation, through successful price rises and robust readership has enabled the FT to take advertising share in most markets and in most sectors. Confident pricing and quality circulation – even with the consequence of reduced volumes – are not an alternative to advertising. They are a support. After all, if the publisher doesn’t value their content and price accordingly, why should the reader?

A shake-out looms

At this point, the objection is often raised: “OK. That’s fine for the FT. It’s a specialist business publication for the affluent.” Up to a point, Lord Copper. Yes, the FT is special, and different. But differentiation is open to all publications – be it brand, expertise, columnists or some other dimension. Private Eye, to make the point, is achieving circulation highs not seen since the target-rich days of Mrs Thatcher. And it is increasingly necessary for all publications. ‘Commodity’ publications which fail to distinguish themselves are probably doomed. A shake-out looms.

Quite often, it seems, the strongest resistance to increased newspaper pricing is internal. The lure of ‘reach’ runs deep through traditional news organisations. On announcing the aforementioned FT price rise back in 2007, and justifying it on the excellence of FT journalism, I immediately received an email from one of our economics writers. “I hope you know what you are doing,” it read. De-coded, it meant, “I sincerely doubt you know what you are doing.” By contrast, I received only half a dozen reader complaints. All of whom stayed loyal when given the price comparison with a cappuccino from Starbucks and the obvious lack of comparison with the cost, complexity and value of the product. The fact the FT editorial team has become so invested in relevance and return, engagement and real connections with our readers is a primary factor in our multi-channel growth and the resilience of print.

Just as print publishers must change their business model to build content revenues, though, so they must also adapt that product and content to the format. Certain forms of journalism are simply better suited to print than online or video – and vice versa. Successful publications will understand that and respond accordingly. At the FT, for instance, the days when the quarterly results of a top blue-chip would make the front page by default are long gone. Rather, value added reporting and analysis, either through exclusivity or judgment, are the preserve of print. Those breaking blue chip earnings can and should go online, immediately.

More fundamentally, the editorial mindset needs to change to ‘digital first’ – in line with the speed and user experience required by readers. Lionel Barber, editor of the FT, has successfully embedded that transformation at the FT, along with a multi-media operation which builds stories and deploys them with maximum effect across our respective formats and channels. The Weekend FT with its ‘lean back’ reads of culture, life and arts remains, perhaps, a print-first publication. Unsurprisingly, its circulation has been especially resilient.

So, who wants today’s papers? (with apologies to Mick and Keith). As long as the content retains its quality, and is right for the format, the readers do. And loyal readers secure advertising. As long as publishers understand advertising is not a sufficient condition of survival, and value their print content through pricing, the presses can still roll.

John Ridding is chief executive of the Financial Times Group

This is an extract from Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, and published by Abramis on 23 January at £19.95. Readers of The Drum can order copies at a special pre-publication discounted price of £15 from Richard@abramis.co.uk

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