Chris Ingram: On newspapers in the digital sphere

Last month I suggested it was premature to write off our national newspapers just yet. There’s no denying that life is tough for newspaper groups, but I can’t help feeling that many groups could deal with these challenges better.

For example, Jonah Bloom says in Ad Age  that of the 350,000 people employed in newspapers in the US, only 10% are journalists: those who are meant to produce the “must-have” copy that ensures a paper’s survival.  If true, this is a gift to their internet “competition”.

Also, at weekends, I make a point of going to the newsagent for my newspaper but I am appalled at the number of times the wholesalers screw up the newsagent’s order. Is it willful because they find it easier to deal with supermarket groups or

woeful inefficiency? Either way, newspapers are losing sales. If they won’t or can’t give the ammunition to the guys in the front line, how can they expect to win a war?

Several newspaper groups seemed to be strategy-free zones in the middle of these huge challenges. Was it clever, as with Johnston Press, to be expecting 30% profit margins with such stiff competition looming?

And why pay journalists to be so negative in your papers about the prospects for newspapers? Isn’t that biting the hand that feeds them?  Have they been retrained?  Has management tried?  How adaptable are their journalists to the multiplatform world?  If they’re not, maybe they have the wrong journalists.

But what about their bosses – the md or publisher?  Do they regard the digital content they produce under the newspaper’s brand name as siblings or subsidiaries?  This is key. Subsidiaries usually end up as pale copies of the real thing while siblings have their own identity, their own peers and are proud of it.

Is it right to produce the digital equivalent of a newspaper or to produce “must-have” content in your given area of expertise/credibility for the right audience at the right time in the right place and in the right mood? It’s the same difference as a company with an export department.

It is staggering that after all these years and all this pain, few newspaper owners really understand their audience – the fact that the same person has several different persona depending on time of day, day of week, mood and who they are with.  Then, how does that differ between non-readers, lapsed readers, infrequent readers and regular readers? 

My message is that this is all about attitude: don’t whinge, adapt the business model instead. And make sure all those people writing you off understand you are not a strategy-free zone.

Having got that little lot off my chest, why am I still relatively optimistic about newspapers? I see four key criteria for judging which newspapers have a future. Do they have a really strong brand? Do they have access to funds? Do they understand the brave new digital world? And are their owners on a mission?

So which newspaper groups meet these criteria and have the best chances of survival?

News International, with four brand-leading titles and owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, must be the favourite to survive this gruelling race. The group is part of a well-diversified group with substantial assets. The owner is a proven winner who has re-invented himself several times before in his determination to build a dynasty. His highly capable son James has been given the group to run and digital seems to be top of the agenda.

Daily Mail & General Trust, a public company owned by a newspaper dynasty.  The Evening Standard has been sold and the regional newspapers may well be next, but to sell or close The Mail would be equivalent to selling their stately home, not just the family silver. However, there is much to do on the digital front.

The Guardian may well have been a pioneer with its online variant, Guardian Unlimited, but that’s not the reason it will survive. It is a protected species with its parent, The Scott Trust, only existing to ensure The Guardian’s survival. The Guardian loses money (and The Observer loses more), but as long as the Board of the Trust invest sensibly, its future is assured.

Telegraph Media Group is, in many ways, the most fragile of these four. Its profits are just under £10m on a turnover of £355m. A 3% profit margin doesn’t give much room for mistakes. And yet, it ap­pointed untested Will Lewis as editor three years ago, who then embarked on really integrating his online and newspaper staff around content subjects.

This was seen by many as a “brave but foolish” experiment and certainly the turnover of journalists who couldn’t adapt was high. Today, the feisty Lewis has 10% more journalists and two years’ more experience of the digital world than most of his competitors. The title’s chances of success are reinforced by its owners, the Barclay brothers, for whom one suspects this is no ordinary investment.

Apart from the specialist FT, the fate of the others will be decided by outside factors: who, if anyone, buys them; the depths of their pockets; and their ability to inject real agility into the organisation. It’s a tough call and it really is going to come down to survival of the fittest, but we will end up with a stronger, if smaller, national newspaper industry.

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