A conundrum for newspapers

I started reading newspapers when our sixth-form economics teacher insisted we do so to keep abreast of current affairs and the habit stuck. My allegiance has changed more than once, but I would be lost without my daily fix. In contrast, I doubt if my two adult sons and  their peers have bought a newspaper in their lives. This is symptomatic of the problem faced by the publishers: circulations, advertising and revenues are all in sharp decline.

Despite restructuring newsrooms and commercial departments and ploughing the ever-diminishing revenues from print editions into new, digital, versions, none of them have found a viable business model. Online advertising revenues and subscriptions combined will always fall far short of the income generated by the old print model. Subject to basic laws of supply and demand, infinite online advertising space is driving ad rates relentlessly downwards.

Essentially, publishers are focussing on delivering their titles to us on new platforms, while their market is shrinking faster than George Osborne’s fan club.

We can now access our daily newspaper via websites, e-book readers and apps on our smartphones and tablets, but it’s still the same old package that holds no appeal to my sons and their friends. Publishers need to appeal to a wider audience and develop new revenue streams at the same time.

I have a couple of suggestions:

  • They should personalise – I’ve no interest in horse-racing results, city prices or autumn fashions, so why force them on me? Likewise the Scottish weather forecast or Welsh TV schedule. I could find the content I’m really interested in more quickly without all these distractions. We know from e-commerce that personalisation improves the user experience, builds loyalty, increases engagement and raises conversion rates, so it looks like too good an opportunity to miss.
  • They could let readers pick and mix. By this I mean that publishers could allow readers to choose which pages or sections they buy. Rather than force their entire package on me, I might prefer the business news from one title, the political pages from another and the sports coverage of a third. For example, the sections that are most important to me are the op-ed pages (opinion and editorial), along with a few star columnists and readers’ letters. In an ideal world, I would subscribe to just these parts of two or three titles. Another reader might want the football articles from all the qualities so he can read all the different stories on his favourite team. This would require co-operation between publishers. Unfortunately, they are too busy competing for shares of a dwindling market to join forces in promoting themselves to a new audience.

There is little time for publishers to turn their fortunes around, and I am afraid that their unavoidable cost-cutting efforts are likely to accelerate the spiralling decline of their print editions.

  • Cutbacks have led to the loss of talented writers, along with some of the peripheral content that lends each paper a character of its own. Readers have also noticed reductions in the space allocated to particular sections and some days the papers feel less substantial than Boris Johnson’s wedding vows.
  • Another consequence is a greater proportion of stories and pictures supplied by agencies. As more content becomes common to multiple titles, readers have less reason to prefer one paper over another.
  • Savings in sub-editorial costs have caused a decline in standards of grammar and punctuation.

Readers also sense that the editorial content of print editions is devalued as it plays second fiddle to advertising, which it is now tucked beneath or wrapped around.

In order to maximise revenues, there may be opportunities to re-imagine the way newspapers sell their advertising space. For example, in a practice that should have become obsolete with the introduction of presses giving full-colour on every page, papers typically offer 40% discounts for mono advertising that competes for the same space as full-priced colour ads. Why?

It saddens me to conclude that our newspaper publishers seem powerless to arrest the declining fortunes of their printed editions. Offering the same package in new formats shows no sign of raising sufficient revenues to secure their long-term future. They need to co-operate to increase the size of their market and they need to find new ways to make money from it. I hope they can. The clock is ticking …

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