At £2, the New European is already one of the priciest national papers on the UK newsstand. A year on from its launch, its editor says that if he could turn back time and do it all again, he’d charge even more for it.
Matt Kelly is casting his mind back to the frantic first deadline for the anti-Brexit weekly, which went from conception to launch in just nine days in the wake of Britain voting to leave the European Union, and recounting how “there was a big argument internally” about whether it should have a 50p, £1 or £2 cover price. “I wish we’d charged a fiver now,” he says.
“I don’t think price has ever been the defining point. The people who buy our newspaper aren’t going to be deflected by a pound here or there. They believe in the project, they believe in the quality of what we’re doing and they’re quite happy to support us.”
Had those in the £2 camp not won the argument, it is unlikely Kelly, who also serves as chief content officer for Archant, the paper's publisher, would be having this discussion now. “If we’d launched it at 50p that would’ve been a disaster and we wouldn’t have survived because we wouldn’t have had enough revenue. But £2, by almost fluke, has produced enough revenue to make it commercially stable.”
Initially launched as a ‘pop-up’ paper on a four-week trial basis, with every week’s sale being “a referendum on the next,” the New European’s performance satisfied Archant enough to make it a permanent fixture. Today, it has a circulation base of “20,000 or so,” according to Kelly, and on a good week, like that of June’s general election, “we’ll sell 25,000”. The paper also has in the region of 5,000 subscribers (a current promotion offers 13 issues for £13) and Kelly says it is adding new subscribers at a rate of 150 a week. What they get is a newspaper that looks like no other.
Behaving like a magazine
“The truth is the new European is a news magazine pretending to be a newspaper,” Kelly says. “The rule, basically, is we’d rather have good, insightful, reflective writing than trying to cover that week’s events comprehensively, because I suspect for 95% of our readers, it’s a secondary purchase for them. They’ve got their news covered elsewhere, we don’t need to worry about that, so we just concentrate on making it as interesting and insightful as we possibly can.”
With “very little” in the way of a marketing budget to play with, the New European relies on eye-catching front pages – often cartoonish – to get noticed on the newsstand, something Kelly and his team “invest a huge amount of time” thinking about. Their most outrageous effort so far featured the face of Donald Trump with the paper’s barcode positioned on his upper lip to look like Adolf Hitler’s moustache, and a cover line asking the question: Is Trump a fascist?
“I think if I were worrying about a 12-month sales forecast, I’d probably have bottled that and thought ‘this might offend too many people’,” concedes Kelly. “But, of course, the reverse is true. It was one of our best sellers.”
Because the New European sits apart from its newspaper peers in both look and tone, it has so far been overlooked by broadcasters’ newspaper reviews, a snub that irritates its star columnist Alastair Campbell. Kelly, however, is more sanguine: “It cuts both ways. Part of me likes the fact we don’t get included because it says that they’re not quite sure where to place us and I quite like the feeling we’re an alternative to mainstream media. I would start getting nervous if we just became another one of the 13 or 14 national newspapers out there. Being seen as different is good.
“That said, it is a stone in my shoe that they are quite happy to feature very mediocre journalism from some very mediocre newspapers – some papers that cover bloody weather reports as their splash from day to day. And yet we’re trying to say something important.”
— Alastair Campbell (@campbellclaret) June 29, 2017
The lack of mainstream coverage, coupled with the paltry publicity budget, is denying the New European of cutting through to the masses. “There’s no doubt that awareness is our biggest issue right now,” Kelly says. “Although everyone in the media world has heard of us, I suspect if you went into a motorway service station somewhere on the M6 and asked a hundred people what the New European was 75 of them wouldn’t have a clue.”
Even in the media world, uttering the brand’s name can provoke a quizzical response. I asked one major UK media buyer to appraise the New European’s advertising prospects, and their response was illuminating: they said their press buying team had never heard of it.
Later, they forwarded a message from one member of that team who was familiar with the paper after all. “I've heard of this, Media Force title right? [Technically – Archant outsourced some of the ad space auctions to sales house Media Force.] Launched on the Brexit lead up to attract pro-Euro Brexit business relations and content around the effect of it [alas, no: the New European launched after the referendum]. We had them contact us and got some initial press about it but no one has been in touch since, not even a request to advertise in there...”
Advertising remains scarce in the New European, and Kelly confirms that its business model is “almost entirely dependent on cover price,” which goes some way to explaining why it costs so much. The temptation is to assume that the paper’s partisan approach is putting off risk-averse advertisers, although Kelly cites mainstream brands like BT and Vodafone as recent converts to its ad pages. “Does our politics put [advertisers] off? What I do say is if you’re not worried about spending your money in the Daily Mail then you shouldn’t have any problem spending your money with us, because they’re every bit as politicised as we are.”
Print-first digital strategy
A happy consequence of the New European’s fortunes not being predicated on advertising revenue is that it doesn’t have to play the scale game and chase clicks online. In fact, unconventionally, its perfunctory web presence – which hit a peak of a million uniques a month in June – serves to drive visitors towards the newspaper. “Our digital strategy is not to have a very, very successful website,” Kelly says. “Our digital strategy is to get people attracted to our content, to sample our content and then to subscribe to the newspaper.”
That means visitors to theneweuropean.co.uk are hit with pop-ups urging them to subscribe in print, and articles from the paper are either drip-fed online, published a week later or withheld from the site altogether. “I would never want to be in a position where people who subscribe to the newspaper felt like people online were getting it for free and quicker than they were,” Kelly says.
The New European’s approach to the internet may sound quaint, but Kelly – a prolific and popular tweeter – is no Luddite. His stance is driven by rational economic logic: “The paper is the dominant format at the moment, mainly because there’s clear revenue there in print in a much more substantial way than there is in digital. That’s not to say we couldn’t try a paywall, but the propensity to pay online we all know is less.”
For Kelly, the other big appeal of print is the prospect of readers wielding the paper as a badge of honour and in the process helping to augment his modest marketing budget. “The whole point of it is it’s a visible demonstration of being pissed off at Brexit,” he says. “You can wear a badge, you can go on a march and carry a placard, or you can walk around reading a copy of the New European and that’s very hard to replicate with a website. You can’t march around with your laptop open, unless you want to get mugged. Buying a copy of the New European is a great form of visible anger at Brexit, and that’s core to the proposition.”
When each new edition is published, Kelly receives photographs on Twitter of readers “hilariously” – his words – covering up copies of the Daily Mail or the Sun with the New European. While his paper’s ethos is diametrically opposed to such publications, Kelly has taken a lesson from the right-wing titles’ approach.
“[It’s] having the courage just to say we are partisan, and unapologetically partisan,” he says. “I think there’s a failing in left-wing or progressive media to be as consistently ruthless as the right-wing media are. It’s inconceivable that the Daily Mail would make a point, like the Guardian does, of saying ‘here’s five articles you should read that would challenge your viewpoint’. It’s just never going to happen. As well-intentioned as it is, it’s part of the problem.”
Brexit and beyond
The trouble with being a newspaper defined by one issue is obvious: what happens if and when readers get bored by that issue? “It has worried me,” Kelly admits. “There have been moments where I’ve thought ‘oh crikey, all the heat’s gone out of it and people are just bored of it now’, and then something crazy happens like Theresa May calls a general election and it all kicks off again.”
Kelly considers his job now to be "to move the New European away from being a single-issue newspaper to something broader", without losing the USP that it is the only paper that is very clearly aligned against Brexit: “There’s no ambiguity about our position – we are against Brexit full stop."
One imminent change will see the New European shift from its 48-page, larger Berliner format to 64 pages at standard tabloid size next week. It's a move that has been enforced by the Guardian’s decision to close its costly Berliner press, which the two papers share, to go tabloid itself in January. Instead of waiting until then, Kelly considered it more in the spirit of his paper to “just crack on and do it”.
If Kelly is annoyed at moving to a more conventional paper size, he hides it well. “All the feedback from the readers has been that while they do like the look of the Berliner, it is a pain in the arse to read,” he says. “They don’t take it on the tube for instance or on the bus because you’re clashing elbows. I think we’ll get more readers on a tabloid version.”
So having confounded critics by making it this far, can the New European continue for another 12 months? “I’m fairly confident,” says Kelly. “We’re performing well above budget, we’re making lots of revenue, we’re making a little bit of profit. Unless things took a downturn, which is always possible – I’ve always got that in the back of my head that it might run out of steam and people might just switch off from it – but there’s no sign that’s going to happen any time soon.”
If it is still here in 12 months, Kelly says one symbol of its success is that there could be someone new sitting in his place. “A year from now, I’d like to be saying let me introduce you to the next editor of the New European. I think that would be a great sign that we had reached a point of sustainability where there would be a second editor of the New European. That would be nice.”
For now, as issue 52 hits newsagents, he will enter the second year of his post approaching the task exactly as he has since day one: “Every week I basically edit the paper for myself and it just so happens that there’s a lot of people out there who feel the same way I do about stuff.”