Have our indigenous press publishers really had their chips?

Have our indigenous press publishers really had their chips?

I started my media career in 2000 at The Scotsman Publications’ Holyrood HQ in Edinburgh, just a stone’s throw from where the Scottish parliament now sits. This was back in a simpler, pre-Smartphone, era, when Big Brother was yet to hit our TV screens, turkey twizzlers were still on the school menu and editor-in-chief and political rabble-rouser Andrew Neil held the keys to the kingdom.

Neil loved nothing more than shaking things up and managed to upset more than a few people in the process. Whether or not you liked the man, his politics or his controversial stewardship of ‘Scotland’s National Newspaper’, the paper regularly sold more than 100,000 copies a day back then, so he was clearly doing something right. Or maybe he just got lucky in a pre-social media marketplace where the newsstand was still one of our main sources of news (fake or otherwise) and cover price reductions and other quick-fix marketing ploys were de rigeur.

Circulation decline

Fast forward to 2018 and the latest ABC circulation figure for this venerable title sits at just under 20,000 copies (19,792 including discounted ‘multiple’ sales). Having made round after round of redundancies, and following a move out of its Holyrood home, it is clearly feeling the full effect of a mass consumer exodus; battered, bruised, reeling on the ropes but still standing. For now.

This obviously isn’t a purely Scottish phenomenon – most of the big UK newspaper publishers ended 2017 sluggishly, although still characteristically upbeat about their future. In terms of circulation figures some, most notably the Telegraph, reported circulation increases at the end of the year, but this can largely be put down to bulk (free) copies going into airports, hotels etc and reduced-price newsstand & subscription sales. Indeed, the Mirror Group’s flagship titles’ circulation figures were down 20% year on year towards the end of 2017 – largely down to their decision to strip out foreign and bulk sales from their ABC figures. That this flagrant ‘massaging’ of circulation figures is still the norm speaks volumes for an industry that has struggled to cope in a post-Facebook world.

An uncertain future

The Scotsman isn’t alone north of the border – its sister title Scotland on Sunday and west coast rivals The Herald and The Sunday Herald all experienced continued circulation decline in 2017. In a recent move – hinting at the increased pressure caused by the digitalisation of property search – The Herald has moved its weekly property section ‘Scotland’s Homes’ into its weekend magazine. A case of one of our proud nationals giving their readers more of what they want in their weekend leisure time, or another example of necessary cloth-cutting?

Regional titles like The Courier in Dundee and the Aberdeen Press & Journal have managed the decline slightly better than most, but still reported a drop in circulation of circa 8% and 9% respectively in 2017. The once-dominant red tops have fared little better, although the Sun is currently winning its battle for readers with rival The Daily Record.

So, what does the future hold for our indigenous print publishers? Can they continue to stay relevant and future-proof themselves in today’s massively fragmented, on-demand media arena?

The challenge of online monetisation

One of the main challenges to growth (or mere survival) has been the decline in print advertising revenues that has gone hand in hand with the decline in print circulations, largely driven by a reduction in property and recruitment advertising in print. The proposed monetisation of their online offering to offset these declines largely hasn’t taken off, possibly because UK consumers simply won’t pay for content that they can get for ‘free’ from their benevolent Auntie Beeb or – as is often the case these days – via Facebook. No Boston Globe-style success stories to report so far, and the Times’ pay wall model still divides opinion among many industry commentators.

What might the future hold for the industry?

We’ve seen a range of different tactics employed in recent years to try to arrest the decline and help turn fortunes around. New ventures, local or otherwise, have met with a mixed response (anyone remember ‘New Day’? Thought not). Some publishers have launched new freely distributed lifestyle magazines specifically targeting affluent postcodes. The Independent successfully launched The i in 2010, offering ‘snackable’ news with a cheap cover price, and made the bold decision to go entirely digital back in 2016. If The Guardian’s website is anything to go by, they seem to be on a continuous crowdfunding drive in order to maintain solvency. And the recent acquisition of the Express & Star by Trinity Mirror perhaps hints at where the future lies – a collaborative one where old enmities are forgotten and audience reach and scale online and offline are brought to the fore, regardless of which mast(head) the consumer pins his/ her colours to.

If the rumours of the ‘super sales houses’ of the future are borne out, we might even see cross-selling help to break down age-old barriers and forge a bright(er) – or at least a very different – new future for our news brands. We’ve already started to see more cross-selling on print & digital, with Trinity Mirror just one publisher now selling their products/ audiences across a variety of platforms. The oft-rumoured but probably entirely implausible Scotsman/ Herald collaboration might even see the light of day one day, bringing a truly ‘national’ press presence to Scottish newsstands.

Plenty life in the old dog yet?

Circulation decline and dwindling revenue streams aside, we shouldn’t paint too bleak a picture of the short-medium term future. Newspapers are often undervalued by agencies and advertisers and still very much have a part to play where consumers and client budgets are concerned. As screen-sharing and media multi-tasking increases, press is one of the last few ‘appointment to view’ media – when someone is reading a newspaper that’s generally all they are doing – and this will become even more valuable as media channels continue to fragment.

Heritage and brand loyalty

Press brands have a distinct and unique heritage and identity, built up over years of publishing pre-internet, and reader loyalty can’t be underestimated. The Independent fared a lot better as an online-only platform (taking on the likes of The Huffington Post) than it would have done if it was a start-up. Independent readers knew what to expect, they could trust in its journalists and content and they already understood its political leanings. The value and credibility of ‘real’ journalism has also become starker amidst the rise in ‘fake news’. All these factors are important when considering the true ‘power’ of press brands. The audience is clearly out there and still sees a value in a brand and its journalists; they just want to access it in different ways and probably don’t want to pay for it. The days of 100k daily newsstand sales for The Scotsman are now long gone, but Andrew Neil currently has 800k followers on Twitter.

This heritage and reader loyalty helps the press continue to exist as a unique & trusted platform, allowing advertisers to reach an engaged audience. As part of a properly integrated campaign they can complement platforms like search and broadcast brilliantly and can be particularly useful in driving short-term sales growth. Newspapers also offer some of the most established and transparent audience measurement tools available to advertisers. If you need evidence of this there are loads of juicy stats to chew over from the good folks at Print Power (proudly flying the flag for newspapers, magazine and direct mail) here

So, next time you’re tucking into your chips (salt & sauce optional), asking Alexa to do your ironing, watching your favourite TV show on catch up and scanning your newsfeed, let’s not forget the role that press still has to play in our society, on our media schedules and in future marketing plans – who knows, it might yet have the last laugh.

Keith Benzie – Client Partner

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