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Let's celebrate a good week for newspapers

26 Nov 2014 |  Raymond Snoddy 
Let's celebrate a good week for newspapers

From DMGT reporting fantastic revenues, to the launch of a new newspaper in the heart of London, it's been a great week for the UK's press, writes Raymond Snoddy. Can the industry keep it up?

There has been so much negativity about newspapers in recent years - much of it exaggerated - that highlighting a little good news for a change is a necessary obligation.

This week there have been significant signs of hope in the national, national-regional and even local papers, although it may be a little early to break out the bunting.

By far the most important development lies in the dry numbers of the Daily Mail and General Trust's financial results for the year to September 2014.

Mail Online revenues grew by more than 40 per cent to £62 million, a considerable achievement, that indicates the business is really starting to add money to the eyeballs it attracts worldwide.

The really interesting bit is that the growing revenues of online are now offsetting the advertising and circulation sales decline at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

Print advertising revenues fell by 5 per cent while circulation revenues were down by 4 per cent.

Despite the fall, total ad revenues across the two national titles reached £252 million, a 4 per cent rise year-on-year.

It's only one year, but those numbers hold the promise of business stability for the Daily Mail publishing enterprise. There is surely the realistic prospect now that the trick can be repeated and growth in revenues at Mail Online can continue to outstrip the "natural" decline in print performance.

There is even more than a hint in the numbers that David Montgomery's Local World is not doing too bad either. DMGT received a £15 million payment for its 39 per cent stake - implying either a £38 million profit, or at least the ability to pay such a dividend.

The significance of the performance of Mail Online, which had more than 140 million unique users in July, is that it finally demonstrates that for some papers offering online mostly free is not a totally daft idea.

After much experimentation it looks like three financial models might be available and viable to sustain newspaper journalism in future - free, metered and subscription.

Have a close look and take your pick.

With online revenues rising at the "free" Mail Online and Guardian sites, the metered world is not doing so bad either. The Financial Times now has 677,000 paying customers across print, mobile and online - the highest total in the publication's 126-year history.

Initially the FT offered 20 free articles a month in "the funnel" used as bait to attract subscribers but has now reduced the number to eight without any ill-effect.

So positive news from the free and metered sector: how about the subscription, or as they hate to see it called, paywall section of the market?

Here the jury is still out, particularly on the wisdom of charging online for a mass-market publication like The Sun.

At least we have some reasonably up-to-date numbers with The Sun saying this week it had doubled the number of online subscribers to 225,000. In the scale of things it's a relatively small total and one that has failed to offset the decline in total paid readership, which fell by 2 per cent on weekdays.

Sun editor David Dinsmore believes, however, that getting to stability and maybe even overall sales growth is possible.

In Scotland there has been the remarkable sight this week of the launch of a new daily The National - albeit a pilot guaranteed a life of only five days.

With the paper devoted to an independent Scotland selling out its initial 60,000 print run, and even larger numbers promised, it would seem to be an easy decision for owners Newsquest.

At first sight the embrace of Scottish nationalism may look like a cynical exercise but actually it is a clever spot of an obvious gap in the market.

Virtually every Scottish newspaper came out in favour of The Union leaving 45 per cent of the referendum voters with nowhere to go.

Given the apparently renewed enthusiasm for Scottish nationalism post-referendum and sharp rise in membership of the Scottish National Party, Newsquest may have a surprising success on its hands, even though launching new newspapers in these times may sound a bit like an oxymoron.

At the very least, the arrival of The National is evidence of a willingness to experiment and a refusal to accept that newspapers represent a zero sum game.

And then there is Sir Ray Tindle. When things are looking bleak we can always rely on Sir Ray to put a smile on faces by stubbornly confronting conventional wisdom and launching new local newspapers.

This time Sir Ray has had the audacity to launch a new newspaper in the heart of London - the London Weekly News. Contained within it will be local "resuscitated" editions of the Westminister and Pimlico News (first established 1857), The Kensington News (1869) and the Chelsea News (1857).

It represents a departure for Tindle Newspapers. Many of the company's small papers serve local areas with a strong sense of identity. This time with the London Weekly News he will be aiming, partly at least, at tourists.

But don't bet against Sir Ray succeeding yet again. He has spent the recession buying and launching small newspapers, refusing to make anyone redundant and distributing a slice of the company's profits as a bonus to staff.

The contrast with Trinity Mirror is stark indeed. As Sir Ray and his editors were planning their imaginative little expansion, placing another bet on the future of newspapers, Trinity Mirror was closing local papers and making journalists redundant.

It is a sad litany - seven local papers going mainly in Surrey and Berkshire with the loss of 50 jobs.

They are the Reading Post, GetReading, the Wokingham & Bracknell Times, the Surrey Herald, the Surrey Times, Woking Informer and Harrow Observer, although the Surrey Advertiser is being relaunched.

Trinity Mirror believes that the future of the newspaper business in such areas is online. Yes, up to a point, but such closures could present an open goal for Sir Ray Tindle to go and open some new local newspapers - not newsbrands, not online but newspapers.

Overall, there have been worse weeks in the history of newspapers - big and small.

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