Newspapers and prosperity

The business model for newspapers – newsbrands if you like – still troubles the industry.  It remains a subject for debate, despite the fact that the audience that they delivered in the good old days is easily obtained in other media.  Yet, and yet, a desire to see recovery in the sector still permeates the ad industry and beyond into the world of finance.


It occupied a good deal of the afternoon of the recent Enders Deloitte Beyond 2014 conference.  Ashley Highfield CEO of Johnston Press talked about recovery in the regional newsbrand field, through mass localisation and allowing readers to contribute directly to publications web pages on local events.  Mike Darcey, CEO of News International argued that the “relentless focus” on print sales alone is “misleading and myopic”, demanding an industry metric that aggregates and de-duplicates readership across all platforms – print, website, mobile and tablet.


“I want to explain how newspapers can do more than simply survive in the 21st century, they can thrive.”


Whilst there are attempts by several media owners to establish unilateral metrics across platforms, we seem to be a long way from a single metric which will satisfy all media planners, buyers and clients.  I have spoken to advertisers of global importance recently, who are appalled at the stultification of the industry in this respect.


At ABC’s conference this February, Rupert Howell, Trinity Mirror’s group transformation director and chairman of Sunday brands, said journalists “can’t just do words, you have to have video”.  Mark Wood, chief executive of Future, added media owners need quality content to attract and retain audiences.  Well of course.  Personally I don’t like to start the week without the Sunday Times take on business and culture and in fact the relative resilience of its print circulation often passes unnoticed and unremarked when the chronic spiral downwards of other titles circulation are discussed.


Newspapers have a long heritage. They were invented in the 17th century by Johan Carolus who proposed turning his weekly newsletters into print if his local council in Strasbourg would give him a monopoly.    There was a business proposition built into the birth of the medium.    A more robust one in fact than that which emerged in the late 20th Century when newspapers gave their product away online, yet still hoped to sell print copies too.


Early modern Europeans were famous for their appetite for news.  Most of it however they received for free, from neighbours, family or in town squares.  At the start the idea that a wide public would pay for a sophisticated news service seemed unlikely.  Early newspapers relied on the state to survive.  Two factors changed their fortune.  First, rising prosperity, which meant that people had money to spend on non-essential items.  We can hope that the recovery in the economic climate can help the medium, but it would be significantly better if there was clear and transparent industry cross platform, indeed cross media, data to feed our econometric models to prove the worth of the medium.  The second factor was social cachet. Andrew Pettegree comments that the eighteenth century Somerset squire might not know why the Duke of Brunswick was gathering troops, or even where Brunswick was, but to be offered this information was to be admitted into the previously closed world of the politically informed. “For the status it conveyed, rather like wearing a sword or riding in a carriage, the cost of the subscription was money well spent.”


Traditional newsbrands seem to have lost some of this social aspiration cachet to other media. To media that facilitate drinking games, and trolling.  This is a big mistake for newsbrands and as problematic to the business issue as the research issue is.  The status can and must be reclaimed – with wit, with quality relevant content and with strategic investment in the brands.





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