Don’t blame the rise of the ‘evil’ web sites for the decline in newspaper sales and jobs of journalists, there are darker forces at work

It’s easy to blame the web for the decline in newspaper sales. Like most industries, there’s always a need to find an easy answer to what went wrong, but this is too simplistic. Why did sales fall off the end of the cliff?

The reality is much more complex than the emergence of the web. The internet wasn’t just switched on in 2006 and the world came to an end. Why 2006?

Having emptied my briefcase for the first time since 1987, I came across some fascinating sales figures from a couple of newspapers I was lucky enough to have worked for.

What they clearly highlight is that for regional newspapers life was pretty rosy until this point.

The rise of web sites isn't the only reason why newspaper sales have declined.

The rise of web sites isn’t the only reason why newspaper sales have declined.

The figures I found, even with the bulks taken out, show that though sales were on the way down, it was a steady, moderate decline, not the 10-20 per cents we are seeing now.

So, from the early 80s until 2006 the average annual sales decline according to my stats was around -2.6% for the newspapers I worked for. Many editors would give their right hand for this result today.

Then we hit 2006. Suddenly the average sale loss hit between six and seven per cent, for some it was even heavier losses.

This became the trend for a few years until around 2012 when newspapers, if they hadn’t already, started hitting the double digit sales decline. Today, other than the odd exception, most of the decline sits unhappily above 10 per cent.

Those which aren’t quite there are often the smaller selling newspapers which have probably hit the plateau of decline. Indeed, if they were in double figures they would be shut or free within a couple of years.

What this decline does show is that the web is not the only excuse for the sales loss. The web has been around for many more years than the last nine years of rapid decline.

I accept that newspapers pay more attention to it than ever before, but that’s because the newspaper sales decline has speeded this process up. What actually happened in those dark days of 2006?

The truth is that the advertising income suddenly collapsed, particularly classified, and owners realised that the regional newspapers were no longer cash cows.

One regional newspaper owner used to call their regional papers the jewel in his crown as the millions rolled in. But it was in 2006 that they suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth, the royal visits to the provinces ended, never to return.

With the prospect of incomes on the slide there was an invasion of grey-suited consultants. They entered the offices to start their bean counting. What was sad about the process of dismantling the business was that these poor folk knew nothing about newspapers.

I remember well being questioned why one reporter had only written 10 stories in a month and another 200. The answer was simple.

One was an investigative reporter who helped to jail a county council leader. These kind of stories cannot be knocked out in five minutes, the other reporter was a junior who spent their time banging out nibs.

But they just didn’t get it and asked how many stories could be written in an hour, in two hours. How many pages could be subbed in an hour or a day?

By the way, the target was to sub eight pages a day. I recommend any sub/content editor to see if they can sub eight pages a day based on a reasonably high story count and small ads. It’s really tough, no chance of a lunch break.

So with incomes down, staff cuts, getting rid of editions, reducing the covering of courts and council, reducing pagination, printing on toilet paper, increasing cover price, oh, and a bigger emphasis of the web, sales started to dip dramatically. The perfect storm.

Ok, I can’t hang my coat on any one of these being completely responsible for the sales decline. Collectively, however, they are a potent force. What it does mean, however, is that the evil web is not necessarily to blame.

Equally, the web is not the part of the business which will prop up the newspapers either. Yep, we all know the truth, that however you fiddle the figures or get the poor advertising folk to flog ads online, the chances of making up for print revenue decline via the web is as unlikely as England winning the Ashes this year or anyone considering that George Bush was a great president.

If it could, we wouldn’t have seen the cuts that have really impacted on the business. Peter Preston’s article for the Guardian reinforced this view this week, you can read it here http://bit.ly/1AGm0FA

Peter has viewed the latest figures from Murdoch’s paywall sites and the Mail online. The paywall was designed so that digital money covers the loss of print advertising and cover-price cash. Unfortunately, it’s not working.

At the Mail, growth was scheduled at 40% year on year, to bring in £100m in ads online this financial year and make up for the decline in print revenue.

However,  growth has dropped to 20%, the half-year digital ad take, at £36m, makes £100m seem a distant dream. I don’t have all the figures to hand, but you can only think that this is a similar picture across all national and regional press.

So, I go back to my argument in my last post. Surely, all newspapers need to look outside the newspaper/web model? Specific apps, with great content, written by expert journalists cornering the market in their subject might be the way forward.

Remember, mass media has gone. Personal media is the way forward, so deliver personal media. What do advertisers crave most? They want to know that their adverts and promotions hit the bullseye (target audience) like darts champ Phil ‘the Power’ Taylor in his glory days.

This is what apps can do. Why not give it a go?

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