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The Holy Grail for newspapers

27 Aug 2014 |  Raymond Snoddy 
The Holy Grail for newspapers

When national newspapers try to sell what should be a good news story for the industry, the data is just not strong enough, writes Raymond Snoddy - and finding a solution is just as important to the survival of the industry as any number of technological wheezes.

A senior daily newspaper editor has come up with a radical plan to transform the economics of the newspaper industry.

The Holy Grail, after all, is really quite simple.

You announce a date sometime in the future - but not unrealistically so; say January 1st 2018 - when you close your daily paper editions in favour of digital and concentrate your print efforts entirely on a jumbo Sunday edition.

Everything else, he believes, will ultimately turn out to be wishful thinking; a state of denial of the current negative trends which if anything are accelerating in their downward path.

The theory goes like this. You concentrate your weekday efforts on producing an excellent digital product across all the outlets available, with particular reference to mobile services.

Then you take the resources saved from paper, ink and transportation across the week and use the money to hire more and better journalists to produce a compelling Sunday - or call it weekend - read full of brilliant features and eye-catching investigative journalism.

The argument continues that you could then charge a premium for such a product that might get close, on its own, to matching the revenues raised during the rest of the week.

The underpinning case is that daily newspapers are for people of a certain age and that the busy young have little interest in buying a paper during the week but are perfectly happy to curl up in bed with one on Sundays or have a leisurely read in a coffee shop.

After all, the age profile of one daily newspaper moved from 55 to 60 in just 18 months.

Extrapolate to 2020 and do the math.

The author of this elegant theory David Boardman is of course American, former editor of the Seattle Times, Dean of the Temple University School of Media Communication and president of the American Society of News Editors.

Better by far, he believes, to make a clean weekday/Sunday split than confusing readers, as Newhouse papers in America has done, by moving to four days a week publication.

The Boardman thesis may be too extreme for the US, at least for now, and it obviously doesn't sound like a template for the British national newspaper industry anytime soon.

It does, however, serve as a warning on what could happen in the absence of a speed of innovation that reflects the dramatic rate of change in the marketplace.

Recent events at the Sunday People demonstrate just how easy it is to get things badly wrong.

The 134-year-old Sunday will continue to exist but on a life-support system minus its editor James Scott and his deputy in a merger with the Sunday Mirror that will also involve the loss of yet more journalists.

The paper that once, long ago, sold 5.59 million copies a week - and that included our household - was in July down to a mere 379,500.

Events at the title, which will continue to exist in a hollowed-out form, have been described by former Guardian editor Peter Preston as the Fleet Street version of a terminal weekend in Switzerland.

If endless hacking away at the number of journalists is no way to avoid a 2018 fate for the British newspaper industry, then just as important in the commercial sphere is the creation of high quality, robust, independent and speedy data linking both print and online.

Events in this important area are rumbling along.

This week Newsworks announced the appointment of Jed Glanvill, the former chief executive of Mindshare, to oversee the audience measurement review initiated by the national newspaper industry last month.

Rather pointedly the announcement noted that part of Glanvill's task will be to consult with the NRS, the current provider of newspaper audience measurement "to establish the best way forward."

Meanwhile the NRS, under its recently appointed new chief executive Simon Redican, is about to publish its latest PADD (print plus website) data showing that when you put the two together the reach of newsbrands accounts for an agreeably high percentage of the UK's adult population.

What is going on?

It all dates back to a seminar held at the Groucho Club in September when all sides of the industry, including the NRS and the ABC, met to review the current state of data.

A consensus quickly emerged that there was an urgent need for robust, independent, cross-platform data that was at the same time both more timely, and less volatile.

There was a clear view that when national newspapers try to sell what should be a good news story for the industry, the data was not strong enough.

The appointment of Glanvill is a powerful statement of intent.

Dumping the NRS - if that turns out to be the ultimate decision - will not be easy. IPSOS, the body that carries out the work, has an 18-month notice period and the NRS member bodies have to give just over a year's notice of termination.

Is NRS doomed or is the Glanvill appointment just a stick to beat the readership organisation into line?

Neither it seems.

The aim is to carry out a thorough review of all options including keeping NRS in its present state, reforming the body or setting up something up completely new.

Someone close to the process describes what is going on as akin to a re-pitch for an existing advertising account with no prescribed outcome - save one - that a way has to be found to produce a better common currency accepted by all sides of the communication industry.

It might sound an arcane, and given the nature of the intense rivalries in the newspaper industry, deeply political piece of business. But it could in the longer term be just as important to the survival of the newspaper industry as any number of fancy technological wheezes.

Nothing can happen before 2016 at the earliest but at least that's well in advance of David Boardman's 2018 bonfire of the weekday papers.


MediaTel will be hosting a debate on the Future of National Newspapers on 29 September, with panellists including Trinity Mirror's James Wildman, Telegraph Media Group's Jim Freeman and the Independent and Evening Standard's Chris Blackhurst. See our events page for details.

See also:

Bob Wootton - Bonfire of the JICs?
Dominic Mills - Unusual outbreak of co-operation amongst press - again
Simon Redican - New NRS chief speaks out on the survey's future
Bob Wootton - Could dropping the NRS actually lose newsbrands money?

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