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Tough measures for tough times

17 Jun 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Tough measures for tough times

Trust and reach are on the rise for newsbrands, but it'll take innovation, fresh thinking and a brave face if publishers are to make it through the Covid-19 recession, writes Ray Snoddy

It would be very easy for a pod of publishers meeting on Zoom, or soon hopefully in a safely distanced pub, to talk themselves into a mood of permanent gloom.

The collapse in advertising in a recession of unprecedented depth and the difficulty of actually getting physical products into the hands of more than 2 million shielders just for starters, not to mention the overall challenge to the business model of the publishing industry.

There are however reasons to be cheerful, and why not indulge for a moment or two in a little schadenfreude – there are others far worse off.

Trying telling executives in the airline, holiday and hospitality industries about the terrible problems publishers and the media in general now face.

The really good news is that publishers have a role, one that has rarely been more important, and there is absolutely no doubt that newsbrands in all their forms are wanted, and valued.

On top there is the priceless ingredient for any business organisation trying to sell the public anything – high levels of trust, although trust is neither universal nor a virtue that is dispensed in equal measures.

A cynic might say words, just words of the sort that could easily form in the mouth of a contemporary Prime Minister.

Not so, as the 2020 extensive international survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the latest numbers from PAMCo make clear.

One paragraph from the Reuters report in particular should adorn the walls of publishers to read again on rainy days.

“As of April 2020, trust in the media’s coverage of Covid-19 was relatively high in all countries, at a similar level to national governments and significantly higher than for individual politicians. Media trust was more than twice the level for social networks, video platforms or messaging services when it came to information about Covid-19,” the report says.

And there is no more important story than Covid-19.

There are, however, interesting hierarchies in brand trust scores both in the US and the UK.

In the US the BBC is second in trust levels only to local television news, but ahead even of the Wall Street Journal, CBS News and the New York Times and way ahead of Fox News, whose Trust/ Don’t Trust numbers are almost identical at 42/41.

Good news again for the BBC which tops the British trust score with 64 per cent, and six other news organisations have above 50 per cent trust levels – ITV News, the Financial Times, local or regional newspapers, the Guardian, Channel 4 News and Sky News.

Their Don’t Trust levels range from 9 to 19 per cent with the balance made up by the undecided either way in the middle.

Alas The Sun seems to be the runt of the litter when it comes to trust with 16 per cent of the interviewees saying they trust the paper compared to 60 per cent who say they do not.

This could largely be a perception problem among those who do not read the paper multiplied by the Murdoch factor, but still hardly a score to be proud of.

According to the Reuters Institute concerns about misinformation remain high, although domestic politicians are the single most frequently named source of misinformation.

The latest PAMCo numbers for the month up to three days before lockdown show the depth and penetration of newsbrands and magazines across 132 print and 104 digital brands.

Total market reach of such newsbrands across a month add up to no less than 49.18 million, with a fairly even split between men and women and a 28 million reach among ABC1’s.

Magazines are not far behind with a monthly reach of more than 43 million.

By any standards the combination of trust - however variable - and such reach are valuable assets.

The only problem remains how to make the assets viable in what could be a long haul out of recession.

It is a truism to say that if there was ever a time for innovation and fresh thinking on how to interact with audiences it is now.

Brand extension in the hope of creating additional streams of revenue has to be a modest part of the answer.

Times Radio to launch later this month is an interesting initiative, although BBC Radio 4 is unlikely to be quaking in its boots.

Greater use could also be made of commercial podcasts and when it becomes safe to do so again there could be pent up demand for live events

But new revenue streams will remain at the margins.

The hardest thinking will have to involve persuading people to pay a fair fee for expensively assembled information.

Of course you run into the old reach and influence versus paywall conundrum, but in future there may probably be little choice. Journalism will simply have to be financed.

Unfortunately willingness to subscribe for online news shows cultural differences, with citizens of some countries more prepared to pay than others.

According to the Reuters 2020 report, in the US subscription rates have risen 4 per cent to 20 per cent while in Norway the percentage has risen by 8 per cent to 42 per cent.

Yet in most countries most people are not paying for online news, and even more unfortunately, in the US 40 per cent say nothing would persuade them to pay while in the UK the figure is 50 per cent.

Given that some smaller, weaker newspapers may come back in digital-only format – if at all - that could be a problem.

At least those who do pay say that it’s the distinctiveness and quality of the content that persuades them to subscribe – both a challenge and an opportunity.

But never lose sight of the fact that digital-only publication is not a virtue in itself – it’s the mix of communication routes including print that makes up the ideal package if it can be financed.

In such difficult overall circumstances the biggest additional source of revenue for media organisations has to be extracting better terms for expensively produced news from the social media billionaires.

The suggestion from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that Australian newspapers could collectively boycott Facebook and Google unless they pay more for news might be worth a close look.

Tough measures may be necessary for tough times.

Join Mediatel Events for The Future of Publishing, a lockdown event lived streamed on Thursday 25 June. Free to register.

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01 Jul 2020 

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