A short time ago it would have been preposterous to suggest that Northern & Shell, publishers of the Daily Express and Daily Star, had anything to teach Mail Online and other digital news brands.
Known for its ageing audience, clunky websites and the open hostility to digital publishing of its owner Richard “BuzzFeeds, SchmuzzFeeds” Desmond, it was deeply unfashionable with younger media buyers and journalists alike. When Desmond sold his interest in Channel 5 in 2014, his newspapers and magazine brand OK! appeared isolated; Trinity Mirror subsequently made a failed effort to buy the papers.
But suddenly the stable has a swagger about it. The successful result in its long-term editorial support for Brexit and improving digital audiences and commercial performance have given it a renewed brand identity and relevance.
The once-mocked Express website has 1.76 million unique daily visitors (up 33 per cent year-on-year), with left-wingers and Scottish nationalists coming to the site to challenge Brexit supporters in debate. The overall readership of the Express titles is up 42 per cent year-on-year, according to the National Readership Survey. Across the N&S major brands (Express, Star, OK!) monthly digital reach has increased to 65m, up more than 70 per cent on last year.
In audience terms N&S still trails in the news market but it has achieved scale with a fraction of the investment of its biggest rivals. “Pound for pound we have got there much more efficiently and much quicker,” says Geoff Marsh, group director of digital content at Express Newspapers. “Some of the sums that have been written off by our immediate rivals… you are looking at the very high tens and in some cases hundreds of millions [of pounds] in failed digital experiments.”
Toby Morris, N&S commercial director, says he does not envy counterparts at traditional enemy, the Daily Mail & General Trust, where Mail Online and its vast editorial team now has an audience approaching 15 million unique visitors a day. “They are a huge scale player but I would question the quality of their content and I would question therefore the ability to monetise or yield manage that audience,” he says. “I don’t know whether they are making money or not but my view would be that they’re probably not, whereas we are.”
Morris, who joined N&S from AOL a year ago, has worked hard at persuading advertisers to discard the prejudices they may have towards N&S brands and to consider their reach. “Surely if you are an advertiser or an advertising agency it is the audience that is critical to you?” he says.
The shock of the Brexit vote has reinforced the argument that this is an audience that cannot be ignored. “Commercially, it doesn't matter what your politics are,” says Morris. “Over half the people in the UK were pro-Brexit. You want to talk to that audience and you can comfortably do it through one of our vehicles.”
The new confidence at N&S is reflected in its recent hiring of Rebecca Hutson, the former head of video at Mail Online, to oversee a programme of investment in video sanctioned by Desmond and the N&S board. "Getting that level of talent in is a great signal to the rest of the market that we are serious about the investments that we have made," says Morris. "The fact that she can see the roadmap of our growth is gratifying."
Some will not be convinced by the bravado. The Express Facebook page, which now has close to 1 million followers, shows little of the ingenuity of news brands who were quicker to see the importance of social media as a route to more readers. Marsh has little time for the Facebook Live video streaming function, which is the source of much enthusiasm and major experimentation elsewhere in the news market. "I personally remain something of a cynic," he says. "I have not seen many brilliant Facebook Lives, l've seen a lot of quite average ones. One rival publisher currently has a quota, telling its journalists they must do a couple of dozen Facebook Lives every week. That’s completely the wrong approach. I mean, why?”
There’s also little interest in Snapchat, the new focus of many rival news publishers, including the Sun.
A sceptic over Europe, N&S is also sceptical about any innovation it suspects of being a fad.
“We have learnt that jumping in head first on certain things – and Facebook Live immediately springs to mind – can be counter-productive and a little illogical,” says Marsh. “Perhaps you get a call from one of the tech giants and there’s a rush of ‘Brilliant, we are a launch partner’ and then you stop and think ‘Why?’ and that’s the more important question.”
Nonetheless, he is glad to partner in the Google-backed Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project – “it’s a very good thing for us” – and says that N&S does have a specific budget for promoting its brands on Facebook.
The Express brand has gained profile from its championing of Brexit. “I think other brands have suffered from ambiguity in the run-up to the vote because they didn’t want to come out decisively until a few days before. We knew which side of the argument we were on – we were calling for this referendum ﬁve or six years ago – and that helped sharpen the focus,” Marsh says.
In the aftermath of the vote, shocked supporters of the EU from across the UK and Europe have found themselves drawn to the Express site, wanting to continue the debate “and have a punch up”, says Marsh. Arguments over the future of Scotland are another traffic driver, with nationalists and unionists trading views. “There seems to be a huge amount of annoyance that the SNP are trying to turn the Brexit vote into something more immediate for them,” says Marsh. “We have got SNP supporters signing up to comment on posts and fascinating debate going on between the two sides. Anything around the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon and the future of the UK [does well].”
The impact of Brexit on the pound will not be helpful to a publisher that depends on so much paper from overseas. The Express maintains a stable circulation of 422,000, helped by under-cutting on price. It carries a front page boast that it is “10p cheaper” than the Daily Mail. Latest circulation figures show the Daily Star and Daily Star on Sunday have increased sales by more than a quarter year-on-year to 411,725 after halving the price to 20p, with all that entails for circulation revenue.
Digitally, the Daily Star appears to be struggling. Under pressure from digitally native sites such as Unilad and the return of the Sun from behind the paywall, it recorded an 8.61 per cent year-on-year decline in August.
But Morris is adamant that N&S is “bucking the market” both in digital and print revenues. He admits that friends were surprised to see him leave an internet giant to join Desmond’s stable but argues that the company’s ownership structure means “we are able to move more quickly and sprightly than the rest of the market”.
New arrivals but newsroom cuts
Morris has recruited commercial talent with experience at such companies as Havas, AOL and Asos. And he is tackling cynicism within media agencies towards legacy media by taking a fresh and transparent approach to providing audience data. “The challenge we face is that the majority of people who buy media probably don’t now consume national newspapers in the way previous generations enjoyed. So there will always be some negativity,” he says.
His message to agencies, backed up by the impact of news brands in reporting recent big stories, from the Paris attacks to Brexit, is that the N&S audience cannot be ignored. “If you are 26 or 27, you may not have picked up a copy of the Daily Express, but the audience that underpins that brand is massively valuable. 40 per cent UK penetration across all our brands is not to be sniffed at.”
N&S has been working closely with audience measurement company Comscore to give advertisers the detailed information they want. With questions being asked about the real value of online engagement, Morris says he can offer “greater assurance that you are not buying automated or irrelevant traffic”. N&S wants to work in “true partnership” with advertisers, rejecting the “rather arrogant” approach of other news brands who still prefer a “trading” approach to selling inventory.
N&S recently lost Desmond’s number two, Stan Myerson. Morris concedes that the departure of “a talisman for the business and a legend within media” is “a loss to us” but said “the next era at Northern & Shell will be very different”.
But none of N&S’s ambitions have much substance without journalism to underpin them and the newsrooms at N&S have been subjected to numerous highly publicised cuts. Morale among Express reporters, who have been denied a pay rise for eight years and threatened with bag searches and monitoring with closed circuit television cameras, is said to be at its lowest in two decades.
If ever there was an opportunity for waving the red, white and blue bunting it was the Rio Olympics – and yet the Express and Star had only a token reporting presence at the Games, relying on agency copy after allocating most of its sports budget to the Euro 2016 football championships. Marsh argues that this made sense, given the inconvenience of the time difference with Brazil and the obsession of online audiences with football. “I don’t think it was illogical to resource this particular Olympics less.”
As with everything else in the world of Desmond, money is only released when returns are clear. Ironically, Marsh concedes, investment is being made in the coverage of the technology industries. Reporters are encouraged to fly to tech launches in Berlin and New York. “They are getting on planes and covering events, meeting the key people and interacting with the brands and we are getting high quality content which is translating into traffic and revenues,” says Marsh. “I think there are very encouraging signs for journalism.”
He also highlights the value of health condition “explainers” as a source of heavy traffic. “Because they are evergreen they continue to perform week in and week out and the return on investment question becomes much easier.”
It might not be the stuff that wins awards, but the Express and its sister brands continue to make money (Express Newspapers declared pre-tax profits of £30.5m last year, partly because of staff cuts). And, despite expectation that it had the destiny of the Dodo, the Desmond stable is at last transitioning into the digital era.
Morris is convinced that the owner will stick around to see that process through. “Richard is one of the canniest businessmen in the market,” he says. “My instinct is that he has made significant investments over the past 12 months and, being the businessman that he is, he will want to see returns on those investments.”
The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell