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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Why regional newspaper web sites will end up a busted flush and how to save the jobs of local journalists

The first newspapers, if they can be called that, often wrote about and targeted specific markets/audience. Regional newspapersA lot of what was written was about politics and was spiteful and untruthful, similar to today?

These were the days before mass media. Early newspapers/pamphlets were so small that if you lived a couple of streets outside its ‘circulation’ area there was little or no chance that you would have a clue what was being written about.

Slowly, the content broadened and started to look like the offerings served up in today’s newspapers. It was thanks to the Victorians that the term mass media was born.

Taxes were cut on newspapers so the chances that a decent business could be made from the world of news became a reality. Add to this the machinery to produce newspapers in large numbers and suddenly things started moving, and they did.

They moved rapidly away from the concept of the niche market. Why write content which was limited to a couple of streets when you could talk to a whole town, city,  county or country? The bigger you were, the more profitable.

So here was the birth of the mass circulation newspaper, both nationally and regionally. But the world has changed. As I have said previously, mass media has been replaced by personal media.

Readers today want to pick and choose what they read, back to the old pick and mix section in Woolies. They no longer want to have to skim the news to find what they want, it has to be delivered to the doorstep.

This makes you ponder the usefulness and longevity of local newspaper web sites. Regional newspapers seem firmly set on continuing producing the same kind of site without any thought of how successful it can be in the future in terms of audience and advertising.

It is inevitable that the web sites will grow rapidly for the time being as the life is beaten out of the newspapers by continually increasing the price and further reducing costs, but this rise will have a ceiling.

The battle to retain web audience and reduce the high bounce rate will become as tough as retaining newspaper sales. The policy of using web bait to randomly grab the audience for a brief few seconds will not build the audience.

One of the main problems is that the web sites reflect too heavily the newspaper ethos of being all things to all readers.

We know that this cocktail of content is not what people want. The future both in terms of revenue and content for the regionals must surely lie elsewhere than the busted flush of a web site only model.

If readers really want specific content, let’s give it to them. Why give readers unfathomable web sites when the media business can offer more sophisticated ways of delivering content?

Ok, keep a web site if it allows  newspaper owners to sleep at night. But for the sake of the business they have to look at producing specific content through the use of apps.

Advertisers would be right to question how successful their ads are on a newspaper web site and whether they get value for the pittance of money they pay.

However, offer them the chance to advertise on a specific content app, which has quality journalism and targets a niche audience which is after their product and you can see how this might be a better, more profitable business.

For example, why not have an education app for your area. Writing about schools, play groups, universities, bringing up children, opens the doors for advertisers desperate to hit the family market directly. What the advertiser will know is that every time someone clicks on the education app they are likely to be after what they are offering.

Apps are more expensive to create, but the cost is coming down, and the likelihood is that newspapers can charge a premium for advertisers to buy slots on the app.

Without doubt, the existing newspaper web site business model will not be able to bring in the income these businesses will want. However, rather than cost-cutting, why not expand and modernise the model?

There is a great future for the young journalists. The need for quality content is greater than ever before. The issue we have to accept is that it will not be within traditional media.

If the wise regional media executives want to truly modernise their business and move away from the stale web site scatter gun approach to content, they will look to niche apps. If you think I’m wrong, just consider for a minute how many specific apps you now turn to for your content.

Think about your interests and then how frustrating it can be to find exactly you want in chaos that is online. But if you had different apps with your interests on without the sweat of fighting with the web, it would make life so easy.

Regional newspaper groups have the tools to change, but have they got the guts to make the plunge or just go for the easy option of more cost-cutting?

Are beautiful redesigns, better quality newsprint and more pages the way to halt decline in newspaper sales?

While all newspapers should be beautifully designed,  it won't stop the sales decline.

While all newspapers should be well designed, it won’t stop the sales decline.

For years I have admired beautifully designed newspapers. I was fortunate to work for some brilliant regional newspaper designers. I’m eternally grateful to them for teaching me the fine art.

I even managed to win a Front Page of the Year award, a proud moment. As I cast my eyes across regional daily papers it is clear there are some fantastic looking newspapers.

Is design important? On a couple of levels, yes. The design sets the tone for the paper and helps readers to navigate around them.

The only problem is that some newspaper groups still think that a new design will drag the readers back and halt the sales decline. Unfortunately, I have not seen any lasting evidence of this.

Any real sales lift comes through short-lived promotions such as buy a paper and get a free chocolate bar which is probably at the end of its sell-by date. Yum.

There is also the idea that a ‘modern’ design will attract new, hopefully younger readers. Once again, where is the evidence?

Is this tinkering while Rome burns?

As an editor and deputy editor, no-one ever rang me or wrote to me complaining about the design, there was never a hint that they didn’t like the colours or lay-out on Page 15.

The only real complaint in this area was from older readers unable to read the paper because the font was too small or the text couldn’t be read on a tint that was printed poorly on low grade newsprint.

On the other side of the coin I had hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints about content. Content is king.

So this brings me to the point. Newspaper designs can be wonderful to look at and the friendly rows I’ve had on the finer points of a pastel shade here or a different font there are memorable.

However, design is something that really only bothers journalists or the hierarchy (attempting to have a pretty looking shop window before a sell-off)  more than its readers.

There is a difficult sum. With a decline in sales there’s a revenue shortfall.

The answer for newspaper groups is to lop a few more pence on the cover price. The outcome is…a further fall in sales.

As an aside, I have always thought that newspapers were too cheap.

But the problem is that they have been cheap throughout time and it is ingrained in readers that they should cost as little as possible.

With this embedded cheap as chips culture, any price rise is looked at as a criminal offence by disgruntled readers who stop buying the product.

The latest ploy by some papers is put the price up, maybe even improve the quality of the paper and then add pages to the paper so it has more of a ‘kill the cat feel’ than the present feather light versions.

However, with fewer staff and more pages to do, the outcome will not really benefit of readers. It just means spreading the content more thinly across more pages.

So what do you end up with? A bigger paper in terms of pages, possibly better quality newsprint, but the same amount of stories spread across more pages and it will cost you more.

Sounds like a bit of a con.

Is this a recipe for success? I’ve been down this road before. It certainly doesn’t provide the answer to how this industry can survive the 21st century.