In 1702, Britain’s first newspaper was produced by Elizabeth Mallet, a Fleet Street printer who was required by the constraints of the time to publish under her husband’s name. The Daily Courant had a simple format: news on one side of the page and adverts on the other. If Mallet had popped up in Fleet Street three centuries on, she would have discovered a world where communications, transport and a woman’s ability to hold down a job without hiding behind her husband were transformed. But the printed format of newspapers would still be very familiar.
Compared to the 18th century, the future of newspapers today is much less clear. Even before the Covid-19 trend-accelerant, the model for newspaper journalism was buckling. Falling sales, keyword blacklists and a decade of superior ammunition from Facebook and Google have exacted a terrible toll.
The post Covid-19 recession – like Laurence Olivier in the dentist scene from Marathon Man – will only magnify the pain. Research from Enders Analysis forecasts a £570m drop in ad revenue for UK print advertisers this year. The recent job culls at Buzzfeed, Vice, Wired and Quartz are not only horrendous for online platforms that have done much to transform news. They are also a stark warning to publishers who want to believe that high-quality journalism can be funded from digital revenue alone. In print, publishers still enjoy all sorts of cost advantages in the supply chain. In digital they command none.
Industry forecasts warn, of course, that the future will be grim. But maybe that doesn’t have to be the case. As there is no choice but to do things differently, the route to innovation is clear. However hard it is going to be, publishers must grab at a falling knife and start to question all the assumptions that underpin their current products. It is time to ditch a 300-year publisher mindset and rebuild the entire value proposition from a customer point of view.
Instead of betting the future of print on products that get more expensive, more broad and sell fewer copies year-on-year, it is time to create additional cheaper and more-focused products that are built around what specific groups of new users might want. Instead of offering online pricing models that assume readers want to show up like clockwork every day (and charging them accordingly), it’s time to offer a better value exchange that charges them only for what they consume. And instead of retaining the walled garden of individual newsbrands, it is time to offer customers what they would be willing to pay for: access to content across multiple newsbrands for a single upfront fee.
Marketers need print
‘Why even bother with print?’ some marketers will ask. Our industry has been so hypnotised by the tactical wizardry of programmatic delivery, real-time bidding and mass personalisation that print may seem like a relic from the Ark. But, however unsexy print media may seem to an army of youthful media planners focused on closing out the quarter, the evidence is clear. If you want to sell products and build brands, print media works. Its effectiveness can be measured over years, not just seconds.
Peter Field’s landmark IPA Databank effectiveness analysis of UK case studies from 2012 to 2018 demonstrates this. Across the key dimensions of customer acquisition, loyalty and profits, campaigns that include print newsbrands are significantly more successful than those that don’t. A mix also pays dividends: campaigns using two newsbrand platforms delivered 2.7 times the uplift in business effects of those using only one.
In a separate ROI study, Sally Dickerson at Benchmarketing (part of Omnicom) conducted a meta-analysis across more than 500 econometric models. Dickerson’s research demonstrated that putting print into the campaign mix boosted ROI across online display and video by up to four times. Print also doubled the average ROI from TV spend and dialled up the effectiveness of radio spend by 10 times.
Marketers must shoulder some responsibility for the demise of journalism. A toxic focus on short-term results, a preference for contexts that are inoffensive over those that are informed and a misreading of the factors that drive long-term effectiveness can all be laid at marketers’ feet.
But marketers can also provide the canvas on which a solution to this problem can be sketched out. It is time for the combination of product, price, place and promotion of print journalism to be systematically rethought.
Perhaps the oddest thing about newspapers is how little the format has innovated since The Daily Courant. There’s something problematic about a product that has not changed overmuch in 300 years. Consider a paper like The Sun, a sprightly youth compared to some of its storied competitors. For 50 years, The Sun has taken the view that the package of news, sport, showbiz and features is the model that customers most want.
What if that is no longer true?
In a world where we curate our own feeds and swipe right for the story of our choice, the ‘package offer’ has gone from being a 19th-century feature to a 21st-century bug. And it’s a bug that shows up in sales: while some readers might still want some of the stories in the package, the number of people who have decided that they are no longer willing to pay for all of these things accounted for 10% of The Sun’s customers last year. It’s much the same story for the Mirror, the Daily Star, The Times and the Express.
That doesn’t mean there are no options for these papers: Marks & Spencer saved its ailing generalist offer by spinning out M&S Food – a category where it had a winning product proposition. Newspapers could do the same. A standalone low-priced daily showbiz brand extension of The Sun, a business version of The Times, or a daily property and lifestyle spin-off of The Telegraph would help mitigate the pain.
New titles could be launched at marginal cost and would pull in readers from across the daily print category as well as from the adjacent magazine market. The rewards of executing this strategy in retail are clear: while M&S’s legacy stores continue to answer a question hardly anyone is asking, its food business is the lifeline on which the entire business depends.
Instead of broadening their offer with low-cost brand extensions, newspaper publishers have gone the other way – betting the ranch on moving their existing titles up the value chain by increasing complexity and quality to justify successive increases in price. Star columnists, extra sections, reader clubs and special offers have all been added in the hope of maintaining appeal.
This strategy has come at a cost to the consumer: in 2004, a newsstand copy of The Times sold for 50p and a copy of The Guardian for 55p. Today they sell for £1.80 and £2.20 respectively. This almost four-fold increase compares to an increase in the total rate of inflation over that period of just 59%. Between 2004 and 2014 daily national newspapers almost doubled in price. And that upward drift has continued ever since.
New titles could be launched at marginal cost and would pull in readers from across the daily print category as well as from the adjacent magazine market.
In his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen catalogued the potentially disastrous consequences of continually increasing price and product quality. Christensen detailed how established market-leading businesses failed to recognise the threat of businesses that created cheaper and initially inferior products – until it was too late. Doubling down on an upward price trajectory is a risky play, especially when it leaves the door to cheaper competition wide open.
One of the more entertaining moments in the mournful procession of daily government Covid-19 briefings came when, to the surprise of many, the Downing Street press conference took a question from LADBible. To some commentators, this itself was journalism’s End of Days. But LADbible, which demonstrated that it is equally at home with Tiger King memes and questions on the Government’s Covid-19 policing strategy, bears all the hallmarks of a disruptive innovator of the type Christensen forensically detailed.
It caters to a large group of customers who are outside the traditional newspaper-buying market. It has a lower cost base, uses different technology and is moving rapidly up the gears in terms of quality (as its plethora of Cannes Lions awards attests). There is nothing to stop this upstart innovator moving up the value chain into paid and subscription products that capture younger audiences via the platforms they prefer.
One bright spot in recent years has been the take-up of digital subscriptions and reader contributions. The Times has around 304,000 digital-only subscribers, The Telegraph has 233,000 and around 821,000 readers contribute financially to The Guardian.
This recurring revenue model has many advantages but there are still some road bumps. Consider the row over the paywalled Sunday Times cover story, ‘Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster’.
This was journalism at its best: impossible to achieve without a deep bench of investment, access, expertise and nerve. Nevertheless, it incurred the wrath of numerous paywall vigilantes whose objection to paying for the piece was mainly that it was so important it should be free. Reader, I feel the same about Ferraris. As Emma Slattery of the Irish Times observed, ‘38 days’ fell into the “growing category of journalism that is too important not to share, but not important enough to pay for.” In other words: a revenue abyss.
Part of the resistance to monthly paywalls is that they foist an ‘all-you-can-eat’ model on a customer who might not want it. The category of potential customers who just want one-off or infrequent access is woefully underserved. As Byron Sharp detailed in How Brands Grow, brand growth comes when you gain more buyers, usually light buyers who buy the brand only occasionally. The all-you-can-eat model targets heavy users and loyalists – but it leaves huge growth opportunities with light buyers on the table.
A better value exchange might be to offer light users access to a fixed number of articles for a single upfront fee. Under this ‘eat-when-you’re-hungry’ model, customers could read any article they really wanted to, whenever they wanted to – but wouldn’t be charged for the hundreds of articles that didn’t interest them at all.
A truly innovative option would be for publishers to collaborate to provide access across multiple titles for a single upfront fee. Imagine being able to read a hundred articles of your choice from a library that includes The Economist, New Scientist, The Times, The Spectator, The Telegraph, The Guardian and the Financial Times, all via a single login and upfront fee.
For publishers, this beats the content commodification deal they sign up to with Apple News and delivers cashflow benefits from a model where customers pay upfront. For consumers, it removes the yoke of a monthly fee and takes into account the ethnography of how we really consume news. Most of us dip in and out of our favourite titles, sometimes ignoring them for weeks. We fall down internet rabbit holes and get a lot of useful news for free. Even when we find a story unique enough to warrant paying for, if the only option is signing up to a weekly or monthly contract, we often decide that the effort is more trouble than it is worth.
Later this summer, News UK will launch Times Radio (full disclosure: as a consultant, I was involved in the concept origination). In a news and current affairs radio market dominated by the BBC, Times Radio can expect to capture a chunk of the 11 million or so weekly listeners to news and current affairs radio. As a DAB national station and app, it can expect to over-index with a young, affluent and connected audience who lean into the high-quality news and expert opinion synonymous with The Times brand.
But while Times Radio will enhance consumer choice within the UK radio market, its more important function is to promote The Times brand by leveraging a combination of radio and brand assets that its competitors cannot rival.
Times Radio will create an always-on marketing vehicle to support the consideration and preference stages of its subscription funnel. It will bridge the yawning gap between awareness of The Times achieved through advertising campaigns and the decision to sign up for a £26.99 subscription when on the website.
Strategic brand innovations are still few and far between and the publishing industry needs many, many more.
Times Radio is not the only customer acquisition and retention tool that traditional newspaper publishers have developed: with its award-winning podcast The Daily, The New York Times has created a powerful conversion tool and extended its global voice, while Economist Radio has a niche but enthused following.
But such strategic brand innovations are still few and far between and the publishing industry needs many, many more.
The Covid and post-Covid realities will accelerate all the existing trends and to survive them print publishing will require new thinking. We need to stop polishing a model that is based on the consumption habits of decades ago. We have to look through the lens of market orientation and summon up the courage to rethink the entire value proposition from a customer point of view. New opportunities will spring from reappraising the products on offer. New customers will flock to products that are shaped to fit their patterns of consumption and demand.
The newspaper market has changed more in the past 20 years than it did in the previous three centuries combined. While the format of stories on one page and ads on the other still serves a purpose, the future framework of print newsbrands has to embrace imagination and innovation, to go well beyond anything that Elizabeth Mallet and The Daily Courant could possibly conceive.
Mimi Turner runs brand strategy consultancy Mimi Turner Associates. She is a former consulting CMO at Wireless Group, marketing director at LADbible Group and special advisor to the Cairncross Review of the future of high-quality journalism.