Digital immigrants embrace Net gains

What is the connection between the Berliner relaunch of The Guardian, wilting advertising revenue at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday and Rupert Murdoch convening a summit of his principal henchmen near his ranch in California? The answer is, in large measure, the internet.

Associated’s problems were mainly in the area of display advertising. True, advertising markets are still weak, but a couple of tell-tale details are worth noting about its performance. First, that classified, though up, was, on Associated’s own admission, much enhanced by its “digital media properties”, mainly Jobsite. Second, that by far the best display performance was from its freesheet, Metro (of which more below).

Increased colour advertising was also important in bolstering a difficult situation, stated Associated. Colour, as it happens, is a key element being deployed in the new mid-sized Guardian. By drenching the editorial with superior full-colour photography, the paper believes it can offset advertisers’ qualms about reduced page size; and also shame the mono diehards into upgrading. Like the rest of the Berliner, it’s a gamble. Once that format was decided upon, with its all-important fold in the middle to lend a gravitas lacking in the mere compacts, delay was inevitable while new printing presses were installed; with the mortifying consequence that The Guardian has lost some serious circulation. Recovering territory in a chronically declining market will be hard once the novelty has worn off.

But editor Alan Rusbridger is aware of a much wider game than beating his immediate competition. Long-term decline in national newspaper circulations has been accelerated by the ready availability of internet alternatives, not least Guardian Unlimited with 11 million claimed adherents. The risk is that newspapers will lose relevance as young people turn to internet news sources, and print-bred older “readers” die. The conventional (and sometimes successful) publishing response so far has been a dumbing-down of content in the likes of Metro, Standard Lite and City AM: a light read on the way to the internet-served office. Rusbridger, by contrast, has austerely reasserted hard news values and in-depth analysis as the foundation of a future-proof serious newspaper. With what results we’ll have to see.

Much the same anguished soul-searching has been going on in California, as Rupert Murdoch struggles to map out a future for an internet-transmogrified News Corporation. Here, too, the intimate connection between changing demographics and the steady leakage of advertising revenue away from conventional media is keenly appreciated. Though the solution is by no means obvious, what he has said is that money and acquisitions will fail to do the trick if unaccompanied by massive cultural change within his organisation. As a self-confessed “digital immigrant”, he is now embracing online community brands with all the fervour of a convert.

It is by no means certain that “old” print- and television-based media companies will inherit the new world of digital media. Many talented internet workers may prefer careers at pure-play digital companies, now the barriers to access are lowering. Yahoo’s decision to hire as a full-time war reporter the man who captured on film US marines shooting an Iraqi prisoner at Fallujah is a small sign of the times, but a sign nonetheless.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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