The New Day editor Alison Phillips mysteriously failed to show up for a scheduled and high-profile debate organised by the Media Society at London's City University on Wednesday evening. The subject of the event: 'Newsprint – it ain't over yet!'
Organisers were baffled and the sellout event delayed in the hope that the editor of Britain's newest national title would arrive as planned. But it finally went ahead without her, with chair Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at the university, Media Guardian columnist and former Daily Mirror editor, breaking the news to the audience mid-debate that he'd received a text from Phillips saying: "Am on a train, was I expected?"
Greenslade has since clarified his comments and said that the text was not from Phillips but from Trinity Mirror's head of communications, Elizabeth Holloway explaining that Phillips was on holiday. Holloway told The Drum: "Alison is out of the country on holiday with her family. There is no conspiracy or tactics at play here - just a simple diary mix up!"
Inevitably, however, Phillips' absence sparked speculation among the audience of media professionals, journalism students and others that it might be more diplomatic than a diary oversight, given the problems facing Trinity Mirror's the New Day. On Tuesday, The Drum revealed that, since increasing its price from 25p to 50p, the New Day's sales have slumped to around 38,000/40,000 compared to its launch target of 150-200,000.
As one wag in the audience quipped, "One of our editors is missing". Chairman Greenslade joked: "I hope Alison not being here doesn't mean New Day is about to become Old Day."
Later, asked for his view on the paper and its future, Greenslade suggested: "Bland, boring and not around for very long."
It was a viewpoint echoed in the post-debate bar afterwards, with one veteran commentator predicting: "New Day? I'd give it another couple of months at most."
Personally I don't see Phillips as the 'running scared' type, so maybe her no-show at an event that had been arranged and promoted for several weeks really was a diary mix-up by an editor with a lot on her plate, rather than an unwillingness to face probing questions about Trinity Mirror's controversial gamble on launching Britain's first standalone national newspaper in over 30 years and in defiance of the conventional wisdom of the industry generally.
Away from the talking point mystery of absentee Alison, the rest of the panel – Sunday Times deputy editor Sarah Baxter, Christian Broughton, the Independent's Digital Editor and Jane Singer, professor of Journalism Innovation at City University – fielded a wide range of questions.
From Baxter, there was a determined denial that the recently announced decision to cease publishing rolling news on the Times and Sunday Times digital platforms amounted to 'abandoning the news business'. She insisted that intensive research showed that timewise there were 'three spikes' when readers turned to the titles – 9am, 12 noon and 6pm.
She said that the research also showed that digital readers went to the Times titles "not for routine rolling news, but for the accuracy of our reporting, the quality of our writing and the depth of our analysis". But Baxter stressed that the strategy was 'flexible' in terms of huge breaking stories such as the Brussels and Paris terrorist massacres.
Baxter also dismissed suggestions that the Times' titles would abandon its paywall policy or had any vision of following the Independent down the online-only road. "We don't see expanding our digital strategy as being at odds with our commitment to those who still prefer us in print form.... whether you want to spread the Sunday Times and its sections all over the kitchen table or read it on your phone at the bus stop or in the coffee shop, we're committed to being there for you."
For his part, the Independent's digital supremo Broughton argued that the closure of the Independent in print did not represent a retreat from journalism by owners, the Lebedev family. The Indie's print demise was driven purely by financial pressures and a "genuine" vision that the future lies online and not in print. "But we're confident that the ethos and quality of the Independent, holding power to account, producing serious, intelligent journalism in the UK and around the world will be preserved in the digital format and it's a sign of trust in that philosophy that has persuaded many of the paper's biggest, most respected journalistic names to stay with us as we step into the future."
The New Day – A personal note:
As something of a Mirror Group 'loyalist' and a (very small) shareholder I was –indeed still am – an admirer of Trinity Mirror's bold decision to buck the trend, shrug off the soothsayers and launch the New Day. There is quite a lot to like about the title, despite my esteemed colleague Professor Greenslade's "bland, boring" and not long for this world prognosis.
The design is striking and clean, the stapled, superior quality newsprint is appealing and it does produce some thought-provoking features with a campaigning edge. The mission statement of targeting new readers who had never bought a paper before or abandoned the habit through disenchantment with the existing titles sounded fine in theory, if harder to achieve in practice.
Against that, however, there are elements that made me fear for its future from the start. The day one giveaway, backed by major TV/radio advertising spend, was a shrewd move. Arguably less so was the strategy of not continuing the 'freebie' sampling ploy for a bit longer (say a week?). Then came the high-risk decision to switch too quickly from the post-launch 25p cover price to 50p – despite industry insiders estimating the New Day's sales had dropped from around 150,000 to under 100,000 even at 25p.
Call me old fashioned, perhaps, but I'm not convinced either by the New Day's policy of dispensing with a traditional leader column. Nothing wrong with the paper's avowed intent to be politically 'neutral'. But I still think readers rather like their paper to declare where it stands, at least on an issue by issue basis. That doesn't have to mean steadfastly supporting a particular political party, or reflecting the culture and loyalties of stablemate, the Daily Mirror. But the lack of a leader column seems somewhat at odds with a title that rightly makes great play of wanting to build a strong Facebook, Twitter, et al, social media profile, while more questionably eschewing a website of its own. In an age where cyberspace debate has become a cultural tsunami, the absence of a regular leader column and a website for the New Day strikes me as a personality bypass that might well deter rather than attract readers.
Meanwhile, for my money, the overplayed promo emphasis on the New Day being a paper for women seemed questionable in this day and age. In effect giving the impression that the New Day was almost a 'no go' zone for blokes seemed a risk too far. As does the token emphasis on sport, as if sport wasn't really a female read. Sorry, but the women of various vintage who inhabit my world are just as likely as me to open the sports pages. As one bright female journalism student told me at the end of the Media Society debate: "I had such high hopes for New Day, but it's turned out to be a big disappointment. It's too much like a weekly women's magazine coming out daily and I've switched back to the 'i' which gives me bite-sized news but a wider range of content, intelligently-presented, and it's cheaper too!"
Ah, the 'i' question. It's widely rumoured in the industry that a couple of years ago Trinity Mirror approached the Lebedevs about buying the 'i', but no agreement on price could be worked out. With the Lebedevs' recent deal to sell the 'i' (circulation around 260,000) to regional publisher Johnston Press for £24m, I'm probably not alone in wondering whether taking on the 'i' – via a differently focused, less gender-specific New Day – might not have been the smarter strategy for Trinity Mirror with its greater expertise in running a national newspaper. Not least because the 'i' has captured the golden target for advertising and circulation directors of an intelligent, but price sensitive, young audience, many of them students or not long out of full-time education. In addition, the 'i' hasn't been around long enough for its audience to be so locked into 'brand loyalty' that they couldn't be seduced by a bright new kid on the block.
So, are Professor Greenslade and others in the industry predicting that it won't be long before the sun sets on the New Day right? My hunch is that Trinity Mirror CEO Simon Fox has so much personal pride and prestige invested in New Day that he won't give up the fight for survival in a hurry. But that doesn't mean that radical rethinks or relaunches might not be on the agenda before the New Day's fate is decided, one way or the other.
Paul Connew is a media commentator & broadcaster. He is a former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and Mirror Group US Bureau Chief. As a member of the Media Society, he attended Wednesday night's 'Newsprint – it ain't over yet' debate.