The Death of the Newspaper Industry

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Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned. I know this to be true because I was there. Well almost.

While I might not have been around in 64AD to witness the hugely unpopular emperor nonchalantly ignoring the plight of his subjects while their city succumbed to flames, I did witness, first-hand, the beginning of the end of the newspaper industry. It wasn’t pretty.

It was 1996 and I had just made the leap from print to digital publishing, charged with building one the UK’s first newspaper websites.

The command to go online had come down from head office and the reason for this investment was at best naïve. We were going online because everyone else was doing it. Essentially, there was no effective plan.

The world I was entering was the digital equivalent of the Wild West. There were no rules, life was tough and only the most entrepreneurial would survive. Those of us who lived through the first dot.com bubble burst can attest to the fact there would be many casualties (although most of them died from a complete lack of business common sense). Despite the challenges, I loved every minute of it.

At the time very few people in the newspaper industry took the Internet seriously. Journalists and editors didn’t want their stories to go online, believing the “free” nature of the web somehow cheapening their craft.

The crazy thing was, back in the 1990’s the Internet was far from cheap. The process of going online was not only slow and incredibly frustrating, it was also very expensive. Early adopters to the web paid by the minute for access, often dialling-in through rather fickle connections made via screeching 14k modems. Only the most dedicated surfer would waste their time on a regional news site when the actually paper product was, in all likelihood, more convenient and cheaper to access.

In those early days, the potential audience we could reach was tiny. This made selling advertising difficult but this was fine because the commercial teams didn’t really understand the Internet and there was still plenty of money to be made via their traditional paper products. What we were working on was the future and that was a long way away.

Old school advertising sales reps and junior journalists often led the charge and were given senior roles in “new media” teams — despite knowing little (or anything) about this electronic opportunity. Jobs were replicated with online departments mirroring traditional newsrooms, actively competing with each other and essentially creating the same copy. Workplaces were given that “new media” feel by casually throwing beanbags around the office, business attire was abandoned in favour of more informal threads and some online teams even got a Play Station to aid their productivity and irk their “old media” mates. How this was all going to generate cash was a mystery.

The online business side of the many newspaper operations was top-heavy and in many cases doomed to failure.

At the time a handful of regional publishers owned virtual monopolies across the UK, had the cash reserves to crush any potential competitors and charged premium rates for lucrative motors, property and recruitment advertising. There was nothing small about the revenues generated by the small ads. Companies like eBay and Monster who were chipping away at the regional’s classified advertising business were mere sideshows and not taken seriously.

Note: Advertisers often told me that they hated the “monopoly” the local newspaper I worked for held over the city. They believed advertising rates were too high but they had little choice in paying the unyielding rate card because there was nowhere else for them to promote their businesses.

Extinction Event

Then something happened that completely blindsided the newspaper industry. Although not as sudden or violent as the comet that slammed into The Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, for many newspaper publishers this was the beginning of the end for their dominance over the media landscape. Make no mistake; the following occurrence was very much the newspaper industry’s extinction event.

Internet Service Providers (led by Freeserve in the UK) started offering unmetered Internet access. This meant that users no longer had to pay by the minute for access. Telephone bills plummeted and millions flocked online. Connection speeds also improved with 56k modems and latterly broadband access becoming very affordable. The Internet suddenly became very accessible and the advertising and content platforms it supported quickly became incredibly disruptive.

To be honest, the newspaper industry was in trouble long before the Internet disrupted their business. Circulations were already in decline as editors struggled (and largely failed) to capture the hearts and minds of younger readers.

When a news title targets an older demographic, its future is limited if it is unable to replace the readers it loses to the inevitable passing of time.

Millennials — The Generation That Abandoned Print

In 2014, the average age of a Daily Telegraph reader was 61 years. Even younger, some would argue trendier titles like The Guardian had an average readership age of 44. Millennials offered newspaper publishers little hope when still hugely successful newspaper brands like The Daily Mail could only boast that 14 percent of their readership was under the age of 35. When people under the age of 40 have never bought a newspaper and are completely at ease with mobile and Internet technologies, what chance does the print product have in the long term?

The fact is, newspaper readership is in decline regardless of age group examined. The US-based media research organisation Pew Research Center suggest that since 1999, daily newspaper readership even among older generations has plummeted with readers over the age of 65 falling from 72 percent to just 50 percent in 2015.

A War of Attrition

The threat to the newspaper industry didn’t only come from outside sources and ageing readerships. Rival publishers also did their very best to ruin each other’s businesses.

All through the nineties, the newspaper industry engaged in a vicious price war. Cover prices were slashed as titles fought each other for circulation. Meanwhile, editors took swipes at their competitors and led extensive and aggressive campaigns against the business practices and editorial practices of their rivals.

There were clearly no winners in this desperate war of attrition. I remember my newspaper’s Managing Director wisely suggesting (during a particularly rousing speech at the annual Christmas party) there is no victory in being the last to die when everyone is terminally ill. We left that party a little drunk and far from motivated.

Hazy Memory: Actually, there were so many drinks consumed at that Christmas party, some of the antics of the newspapers overexcited and clearly inebriated classified advertising sales team actually made the front page of a rival tabloid newspaper (all part of a dirt-digging exercise and almost certainly a component of the ongoing circulation war).

While many publishers might have been able to manage a slow decline in readers, they would never survive the rapid decline of their classified advertising business. The Internet took a business that was nearing a precipice and simply pushed it off.

Classified Information

The likes of eBay, Monster.com, RightMove and latterly Gumtree completely destroyed the newspapers buoyant and exceedingly profitable classified advertising business. If you had a car to sell, a property to let or a job to fill — why limit yourself to the reach of the local newspaper when you could advertise to the entire world at a fraction of the cost?

Although the decline had started long before Google, before Facebook, before smartphones and mobile apps, these are the guys many failing newspaper executives wave their accusing fingers at when looking to assign the blame for their demise. The rot had actually set in decades earlier and it was just a matter of time before the walls came tumbling down. Rather than embracing the future, newspaper bosses tried to protect a glorious past rather than invest in the future and they just couldn’t understand it when the world moved on without them.

Fast forward some 20 years and the newspaper industry is unrecognisable from its glory days. Once dominant news brands have merged, re-branded or simply gone away. Daily titles have become weeklies, print editions have gone online, journalists and editors have been corralled into remote regional hubs and photographic jobs replaced by iPhones and social media syndication. When publishers are so unwilling to invest in great people to produce good content, its little wonder circulations continue to fall and their influence withers.

If you are in any doubt about the current state of the newspaper industry, take a look at its own trade press (ironically only available online).

Websites like Hold The Front Page and The Press Gazette spend more time covering newsroom redundancies, newspaper closures and the occasional rant at publishers, social media platforms and search engines who they largely blame for the industries decline.

Love Newspapers, Hate Newsprint

Don’t get me wrong. I still love newspapers and very much consider myself a newspaper man at heart. In fact, seeing the industry in such a state actually breaks my heart a little.

However, I do believe there is a future for our favourite news brands — they just need to let go of the past and understand that they have to change if they are to survive and thrive in the digital age.

The first thing it needs to let go is its love affair with print and “traditional” advertising formats.

This isn’t to say that newspapers should stop printing physical copies. They should just understand the limitations of print and focus their time and effort on creating new routes to market and commercial opportunities.

Sadly, opportunities are missed because many people within the industry do not fully understand, and this might sound quite ridiculous, what a newspaper actually is.

What is a Newspaper?

A newspaper is simply a database of news, information and commercial opportunities. Newsprint is just one of the many different platforms by which the information in that database is accessed. But unlike competitive digital platforms, print is expensive, difficult to distribute and is often out-of-date before it hits the streets.

The newspaper industry’s continued love affair with print (at all costs) will lead to its continued and rapid decline. The digital genie is out of the box and it’s not going to get back inside it again anytime soon.

Note: It used to be said that today’s news was tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. Thanks to food hygiene regulations, newsprint isn’t even good enough for that anymore.

Exceptions to Prove the Rule

There are of course a number of exceptions to prove the rule and it is always worth remembering that no new media has ever replaced an existing media. Print wasn’t replaced by radio, radio wasn’t replaced by television and television wasn’t replaced by the Internet. Each existing media has simply found its place and in many instances the lines between media have blurred as old and new media come together to become stronger.

The Independent is one newspaper title that has taken the brave move away from the shackles of the printing press. Since cutting its ties to print, The Independent has reported something that many of its competitors could only wish for — a profit.

In fact, at the time of writing The Independent had just celebrated its first profit in nearly 23 years.

Justin Byam Shaw, chairman of The Independent highlighted the success by telling journalists: “This historic return to profitability demonstrates the opportunities our move to digital brings.”

However, the success of The Independent in the digital world has come at a cost. While The Independent’s website appears to retain a similar focus in terms of quality to the old print edition, much of its output via Facebook and other social media channels often falls into the realms of reputation busting clickbait.

Pop-Up Publications

Another newspaper title that seems to be bucking the trend is The New European.

Few would have blinked if The New European had closed down after its initial four week publishing period. The New European’s Publishers Archant were very clear from the start that it was a “pop-up” paper, riding an opportunity created by the results in the Brexit referendum. Success beyond its first month of publication would be considered a huge bonus — bit the title would only continue if it found an audience.

Launched incredibly quickly, it took just over a week to go from initial concept into full production with the title selling a staggering 40,000 copies of its first issue. At time of writing, seven months after launch, The New European is still going strong and selling some 25,000 copies each week. Financially, this is more than double the number it needs to produce to keep its head above the water.

So why is The New European succeeding when so many other newspaper titles are failing?

The New European’s editor Matt Kelly told attendees at the Digital Marketing Strategies event in London, the newspapers success was very much down to its readers wanting to be part of a community.

Kelly said: “On the day of the result, there was a sense of bereavement, that something awful had just happened — a collective sense of gloom. I thought, what could be the paper that one of the 48 per cent would pick up and carry around to demonstrate that they were part of that very clear, self-defined group of people that suddenly felt disenfranchised?”

Kelly continued: “The idea is that it costs £2 to join a community and you get a free newspaper every week, and that’s very much the sense we’ve got from our audience.”

In many respects The New European was launched in a similar fashion to an online publication. Unburdened by history or public expectations it just tried something new. This clearly resonated with its target audience. The New European is certainly a more agile product when compared to more traditional newspaper products and when success is judged on a week-by-week basis rather than looking too far into the future it’s unlikely the title will suffer a long, lingering, undignified death.

The Rise of Clickbait Journalism and Decline of Newspaper Reputations

Clickbait is a pejorative term for a headline-writing technique that online publishers have been using for years to drive traffic to websites, more often than not featuring paper-thin content, in the hope of driving advertising impressions and revenues.

Editorial platforms are regularly hijacked by advertising links disguised as “reading recommendations” which direct readers away from the publisher’s site and onto low-quality sites with the sole purpose of delivering as many advertising impressions as possible. As an ex-newspaper man, I’m constantly perplexed as to why any editor would allow their “quality” content to be sullied by clickbait-style advertising partnerships. I guess many are just desperate for the cash they generate, although I cannot help but feel it’s a rather short-term plan for a very uncertain future.

You only need to click on a clickbait-type headline a couple of times to realize you’ve been duped — like a fish finding itself on a hook after biting down on a juicy worm.

The thing about clickbait is that it nearly always leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The content is rarely as sensational, awe-inspiring or informative as the headline promises, and quite often, it simply wastes your time.

Not All Traffic Is Good Traffic

The basic premise of clickbait is that all traffic is good traffic. This doesn’t work in the world of newspaper publishing, where long-term relationships are far more valuable than quick wins.

In the very worst case scenarios, publishers are taking clickbait style content designed for the web and actually printing it on paper.

A Slow News Week at The Coventry Observer?

If an end-of-year edition of The Coventry Observer (December 2016) was anything to go by, they were suffering from a severe news drought in the Midlands over the Christmas holidays. Unable to find a single print worthy news story the editors at the Bulviant Media owned operation decided to fill the entire newspaper with listicles (a style of content presented in the form of a list often favoured by websites like BuzzFeed).

The front page headline of the paper even went as far as suggesting that the British public loved a good list.

However, a quick look at the online edition revealed a rather different story. There was tons of news over the Christmas period. The local council had launched a help line for vulnerable adults, a group of accountants had got on their bikes and raised £25,000 for charity, a former theatre manager had stolen £5,000 and a local child had been placed in care after being bitten by his mother — all great content for a local newspaper. So why wasn’t it in the print edition?

You can only assume the publishers no longer cared about print and simply had to push something out there to keep their advertisers happy.

Note: Personally, if I was an advertiser, I would have demanded my money back. A collection of listicles does not represent a viable newspaper advertising platform.

The Coventry Observer might be a free newspaper but by stuffing it full of lists and then telling its readers that they “love lists” is an insult to anyone who reads newspapers. It is one step away from filling its pages with automatically generated “lorem ipsum” Latin used by designers when creating design drafts.

If the editors or journalists at the newspaper really had nothing to say, perhaps they would have been better not printing the edition in the first place.

Even Social Media Hates Clickbait

While newspaper publishers risk their future on the short-term promise of clickbait, social media sites are doing their best to remove it from their networks.

Facebook is actively taking on the clickbait merchants with changes to its newsfeed algorithm which will reduce the visibility of clickbait style content.

The system which works in a similar fashion to email filters employed to identify spam communications was introduced following demands from the social network’s users who want to see more relevant and useful stories in their newsfeeds.

Newspaper editors, who are often quick to criticise social media and blame them for their misfortune, could do worse to follow in Facebook’s footsteps and banish clickbait to the history books. If they want to stay relevant, why sell something that promises the complete opposite?

Death of an Editor

The newspaper industry’s reliance on clickbait-style content to fill their pages is a symptom of widespread editorial cuts. In these difficult times for newspaper publishers, nobody’s job is safe, as was demonstrated when UK regional publisher Trinity Mirror culled a number editors roles across its regional titles.

In the local press, the role of editor was very much seen as a figurehead within the local community, up there with local councillors, the clergy and other community leaders. How the loss of such significant roles will impact on the credibility of local titles remains to be seen but with no figurehead at the helm, you have to wonder how Trinity Mirror’s local titles will struggle to chart a successful path into the future.

Search Engines, Social Media and Content Aggregators

In any culture of blame there is always a bogeyman. A bogeyman is someone people can hold responsible for their, often self-inflicted, misfortunes and failings. The newspaper industry actually has any number of bogeyman but the most prominent are the social network Facebook and the search engine Google.

The problem publishers have with these companies is the fact that they pretty much own the online advertising market and act as a gatekeeper to their content.

Many publishers argue, Facebook and Google would not have a business if not for their content. Others argue publishers would not have any online traffic if Facebook and Google did not refer visitors their way. It’s very much a “chicken and egg” argument.

However, newspaper publishers would do well to note the experiences of German publisher Axel Springer who decided to opt-out of their content appearing on the Google News platform. Google removed everything except the headlines from their search engine results pages (SERPs) and as a result Axel Springer’s traffic fell off a cliff. Within two weeks they were back on Google.

Another bogeyman the newspaper industry is keen to point the finger of blame at is news aggregators. Sites like The Huffington Post have largely built their business model by aggregating news from other sources (essentially re-writing stories and headlines and perhaps sourcing some additional images).

The problem for the newspaper industry these aggregators pose is the lack of investment they have to make in the production of their sites. While a newspaper might have to fund a journalist over a significant period of time, covering wages, travel and other essential expenses to acquire and break a story, an aggregator can simply re-write the story from the comfort of their desk. With much lower expenses, the aggregator’s business model is much more easily funded by online advertising (despite its limitations).

There is nothing new about news aggregation. Newspapers have been aggregating each other’s content for decades. Newsroom cuts mean that many journalists are simply aggregating content from social media instead of going out and finding “real” news. Aggregation impacts on quality and makes it difficult to differentiate between titles.

Longform journalism offers one answer to the problem of aggregation. Aggregators aren’t interested in re-working lengthy pieces of journalism. They are more interested in the sheer volume of articles they publish on a daily. Instead of making it easy for aggregators to simply copy and re-appropriate short articles, let them review, promote and ultimately drive traffic to longer articles. It’s a case of quality rising to the top.

Ad-blockers

Newspaper publishers aren’t just losing out to the new breed of disruptive, digital news sites. Advertising, their main source of income, is being cut off at source thanks to ad-blocking technology.

If there are two things people hate more than anything else online, it’s paying for content and being interrupted by advertising. This, as you can imagine, puts the publishers of online newspapers, blogs and information sites under a lot of pressure.

For many publishers, advertising revenue is their only viable source of income. As they desperately try to claw back revenues (lost from print sales and abandoned online paywalls), they throw every form of online advertising at their readers in the hope of seeing a decent return on their investment in content.

Unfortunately, there is a fine line between an acceptable volume of ads and a torrent of commercial messages that make a site virtually unusable.

Obtrusive advertising (ads that eat bandwidth, slow page load times and generally get in the way of good content) has resulted in vast swaths of the online population employing the services of ad-blocking technology, cutting off vital advertising revenues and sending publishers into a spin, desperate for a workable business model.

A Global Technological Threat

The deployment of ad-blocking software is a rapidly growing trend across both desktop and mobile devices (aided by Apple allowing ad blockers to promote their services via the App Store).

Fifty-seven percent of all Internet users between the ages of 18 and 34 now use ad blockers. In 2015, ad blockers destroyed $21.8 billion worth of revenue opportunities for online publishers. As ad-blockers become more prevalent this figure is expected to double.

Ad blocking doesn’t just represent a threat to the online publishing world. It threatens businesses of all shapes and sizes that rely on online advertising (banner ads, paid search, etc.) to drive demand and acquire new customers.

Ever Decreasing Advertising Circles

Advertisers already now there is very little opportunity to reach their target audience when more than half of them have opted out of see their campaigns. If advertising has no value, how else are newspaper publishes going to monetise their traffic and brand?

Smart publishers are exploring other revenue earning opportunities including events and eCommerce.

New Opportunities as Publishers Become Retailers (and vice versa)

Retailers and publishers probably have more in common with each other than they initially might realise. Both industries have been completely disrupted in the digital age, forcing old business models out of the window and opening the door to competition from more adventurous start-ups, many of which seemly come out of nowhere.

It might be a cliché — but thanks to advances in digital technology, change might well be the only constant. For many retailers and publishers, it’s a case of move with the times or move out of the way.

One of the biggest changes we are seeing is the lines between retail and publishing are becoming increasingly blurred. Retailers like ASOS are adopting content-led marketing strategies and essentially becoming publishers, while publishers like Condé Naste are launching eCommerce operations to make up for falling advertising revenues.

Follow the New Leaders

It’s perhaps ironic, in an age where it has never been easier to become a publisher, so many publishers are struggling to get to grips with the new technologies and mind sets required to remain relevant in this digital age. In many respects, traditional news publishers are now playing a game of catch-up. Unfortunately for them, the competition is faster and more agile, meaning they will have to make quicker and potentially unpopular decisions about the future of their businesses if they want to stay in the game and time is almost certainly not on their side.

Written by

Marketing Strategist, Author of #BecomingTHEExpert, Content Marketing Trainer, and Cyclist. Check out my author profile: https://amzn.to/2OO5DR5

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