Content is the ‘must-have’ in a multi-format newspaper future

Pundits have long been predicting the demise of newspapers, but their long-term survival could lie in that classic marketing concept – brand extension, says Chris Ingram

It would be easy to suppose newspapers are on their last legs. The Daily Mail & General Trust arguably put its family silver up for sale by announcing the potential sell-off of Northcliffe Newspapers; Trinity Mirror seems to be identified with cost-cutting more than expansion; and Rupert Murdoch – having said that too many editors and reporters are out of touch with readers – has made major investments in online brands.

This is by no means a UK phenomenon. The New York Times announced 500 redundancies last October in the face of declining circulations, while US publisher Knight Ridder also laid off 200 editorial staff. Newspaper circulations between 1995 and 2003 fell by five per cent in the US, three per cent in Europe, and two per cent in Japan. There is no doubt that this decline is accelerating.

To round off the year, Advertising Age’s 2005 summary of “the most pathetic media meltdowns” listed “the death of newspapers” at number five. It is perhaps understandable that there is gloom about the future of newspapers. They did, after all, reach an extraordinary pinnacle in the 20th century.

Winston Churchill praised newspapers during the Second World War/ “Our vast, influential press has known how to combine independence and liveliness with discretion and patriotism.” Anthony Sampson was also in no doubt about the power of The Fourth Estate in his 1962 book “Anatomy of Britain”. But six of our national papers were then selling over 4.5 million copies an issue, with the News of the World selling about 7 million. The problem then was controlling the power of the press, not avoiding its death.

But is the current gloom overblown? Is the rush to sell newspapers and expensive diversification into digital brands premature? What is the right strategy?

To be blunt, it probably isn’t that of The Observer. The new format may have been well-received critically, but it took 18 months to develop, cost tens of millions, and Roger Alton, the editor of this consistently loss-making paper, is reported to have said: “If I can increase circulation by one or 1,000, I’ll be thrilled.” Delightfully eccentric, but not a guide to the future, as the paper would have disappeared if it wasn’t supported by The Scott Trust.

Bearing in mind how much people’s lifestyles are changing – not just from greater affluence and choice, but also through technology – many newspapers have not sufficiently recognised current trends. The word “newspaper” is now a misnomer. There are far better ways to keep up with the news. But newspapers are still definitely involved in the production of content in a rapid, disciplined and organised way: which other industry produces an entirely new, cheap product every day, on incredibly tight deadlines?

When we work with newspapers we avoid dangerous generalisations, and divide the market into different lifestyles, ages and moods. We examine the type of content, how it can be presented, when and which communications channel to use. This often produces a number of profitable sectors and niches to fill, and newspapers are only one way of filling these niches and meeting these needs.

Newspapers have to think of themselves as a content producer, and their journalists have to be capable of working across several different communication formats to be successful. Some have adapted well, but not enough – I was amazed by journalists at the New York Times helplessly bemoaning the increasing threat to newspapers from the internet.

Of course, the market for daily, paper-based products will be around for some time, built on a variable formula of news and comment. But that market is slowly dying. Newspapers are incredibly strong brands, so it is puzzling how some proprietors seem willing to pay huge premiums to buy digital brands that will require significant, and continuing, marketing investment to keep them in the public eye. By comparison, a “range extension”, using the strengths of their existing brands with their rich heritage, would produce considerable cost savings in marketing.

The successful newspaper of tomorrow won’t think of itself as a newspaper at all, but as a publishing business built around a strong brand, rich in values. These will decide what it can credibly do – just as with any successful brand. The publisher has to create “must have” content, and be comfortable in every communications format.

It is easy for consultants to give strong advice without any real responsibility, but in this case I have put my money where my mouth is. Three years ago, my son and I bought a national football newspaper out of administration: The Non-League Paper (small stuff, but it still has production, printing, distributing and marketing issues). We launched a Friday edition, then a sister title. But we know if we stay in newspapers, once we’ve done all the obvious things we’ll be managing decline, so we are busy planning our own range extensions – online and offline.

So I say, with some conviction, unsuccessful newspapers may be dying, but successful ones are changing into multi-platform publishers.

Chris Ingram, founding partner of The Ingram Partnership

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