Are printed newspapers dead?

Printed newspapers: "It ain't over yet" - if you stick your head in the sand much longer it will be
Printed newspapers: “It ain’t over yet” – if you stick your head in the sand much longer it will be

Last night I went with some colleagues to a Media Society event called “Newsprint – It’s Ain’t Over Yet?” After listening to the panel and some of the questions, I think the end of printed newspapers could be nearer than previously thought.

The panel consisted of two academics, Professor Roy Greenslade and Professor Jane Singer both from the City University London; Sarah Baxter the Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times; Christian Broughton, Editor of The Independent; and Alison Phillips, the Editor of The New Day. Professor Greenslade was the chair, and Alison sent him a text half way through the event to say she couldn’t make it.

Here are some of the highlights from the panellists’ short speeches:

Professor Roy Greenslade

“If you can get the right content to the right customer, print will continue.”

There are only 43,000 outlets in the UK where customers can buy printed newspapers. When The Independent stopped its print edition, it was selling under 40,000 copies per day – i.e. less than one per outlet.

Christian Broughton

Paid for, printed newspapers are already dead. (His point is that newspapers like the Metro and Evening Standard are flourishing, because they are literally given away for free).

Weekly paid for magazines may sell well.

The Independent now has more readers than it did in its print form, and they are global. (Both of these topics were discussed in more detail later).

The Independent has been profitable for the last three years and its revenue has grown 50% year on year in that period.

Two thirds of The Independent’s digital edition are on a mobile device.

Professor Jane Singer

High end titles such as The Guardian, New York Times and Wall Street Journal will continue to sell well. Low end, free titles such as the Metro and Evening Standard will thrive.

The middle ground – such as paid-for local newspapers will continue to struggle for some time.

Print is becoming more of a magazine format, with more analysis and interpretation. Printed newspapers will stop concentrating on breaking news (even their digital editions).

Sarah Baxter

The digital delivery of The Sunday Times is about to change, to a new ‘edition’ every three hours – starting at 9am, then midday, and so on. This is to keep the editorial quality high. There will be a new smartphone and tablet app released to support the new model.

The Sunday Times is a trusted source, compared to a random tweet with breaking news.

Like Professor Singer said, newspapers will provide more breadth and opinion, but it requires customers to pay for this content.

‘Alison Phillips’

Professor Greenslade said that if Alison had turned up, she’d say that the New Day was a newspaper for people who don’t normally buy printed newspapers. 900,000 copies of The Evening Standard are consumed every day, and advertisers still find this customer-base appealing.

Discussions about Print

The panelists then began a discussion session. Unfortunately it was too detailed, which set the audience off on the wrong foot (myself included until afterwards when I started thinking about the whole event) – people weren’t thinking at a macro level enough.

Professor Singer said there was a gap in the market for a philanthropic ownership model in the UK, like some of the titles in the US. Sarah Baxter did point out that Rupert Murdoch had invested hundreds of millions of pounds into The Times and The Sunday Times!

The panel then described how there is a moral obligation for newspapers in society, to hold politicians and corporates to account. Having a decentralised, and untrusted landscape of social networks and blogs won’t replace the newspapers.

Branding is vital – there is huge trust in some of the newspaper titles.

Audience questions

The first question from the audience was that all these opinions so far were from inside the industry. What about asking customers? Christian said they do look at analytics carefully, sometimes obsessively, but there was no evidence from the rest of the panel that consumer insight was on anyone’s priority list.

One of the panelists quoted the oft-used phrase “Never have so many people read newspapers, and never have so few paid for it” in reference to people reading the digital versions.

We were sitting in City University London, so naturally the topic turned to jobs. The panelists described how just a few years ago there was a fear of graduates of journalism courses not being able to find jobs, but there are now so many websites looking for trained journalists.

Someone asked about ad blocking, and all the panelists said they weren’t doing anything about ad blocking technology yet. They also said that so much content was delivered through their apps, that browser-based ad blockers didn’t affect them so much.

(Apparently, almost 1 in 5 Internet users in the UK use ad blocking software, but anecdotally I find it is lower than that figure).

Christian said that newspapers need to educate customers into why advertising is important for the newspaper to keep running. Sarah said that the cost of employing a journalist, sending them into a war zone and keeping them safe, requires them to have advertising on their sites.

We were back to quality. In the US, the newspapers are referred to as the ‘lamestream’ media. They aren’t investigative enough, and editorial quality is not high enough. This is why UK newspapers are flourishing in the US (titles such as The Guardian and Independent have large offices in the US) – because our quality is much higher. This requires more revenue, to pay for the US distribution.

Printed newspapers used to have all the advertising budget of companies wanting to advertise in print. But businesses now spend that same money with search engines (and the other advertising spots which they ‘own’) and social networks. Now, little is left in advertising budgets for newspapers.

I asked about subscriptions – why do I need to commit to buying a month of a newspaper in the digital world, but I can buy a single daily printed newspaper from a newsagent? Professor Greenslade answered on behalf of the panel (which was a shame) and said that the cost of selling a single digital newspaper was too high (the payment processing costs). I said that I am able to buy a single MP3 for 99p from any app store – a single printed copy of the Financial Times is £2.50. He moved on to the next question while Christian said The Independent were allowing a single daily subscription.

Summary

The printed newspaper industry desperately needs a revolution. It’s a professional industry that is digging its heels in, trying to survive with tactical changes here and there. Other industries and rapidly changing entire business models by watching changes in their customers’ behaviour and responding quickly.

The use of social media was dismissed by the panelists. Newspapers should work out how to monetise social networks, not dismiss them. Why employ hundreds of journalists when over a billion people are reporting news on social networks? Change the model and employ more high quality editors to provide those valuable opinion pieces instead.

Newspapers needs to understand what customers want, rather than deciding in a meeting room “we’re the professionals and we know what our customers want”. They need to look into the customer analytics and make constant changes to adapt to changing behaviour.

One of the questions from the audience was about the BBC’s digital coverage. Sarah from The Sunday Times said that the BBC was using licence payer’s money to build digital ‘services’ never prescribed in the BBC’s charter. She said licence payers should be asked whether we want our money spent on these services. My answer to that is that we licence payers are using BBC services such as iPlayer and BBC.co.uk in our hundreds of millions. In January 2016, we watched made 315 million requests for content just on iPlayer – and requests are still growing 2% per month. Sarah and the rest of the panelists (with the exception of Christian) still have the old mind-set of audience research – in the digital age it’s about consumer insight from real audience behaviour.

The printed newspaper industry has been overtaken by social networks where we consume breaking news and opinion sites such as blogs, Buzzfeed, Vice and Medium, to name just a few. There needs to be more Jeff Bezos type characters who will revolutionise the industry and reshape it.

If I were any of the journalism students in the room last night, I’d concentrate on the future  – what formats do readers want in the current age?

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