The New European: the pop-up paper that defied the odds
It was only supposed to last four weeks but is still going strong almost one year on. The New European's editor Matt Kelly tells Ellen Hammett what's next for the newspaper that proved you don't always need a long-term plan.
On 24th June 2016, while 48% of Britain mourned the outcome of the EU Referendum, Matt Kelly sent an email to his boss at Archant which sowed the seed for what has arguably become a publishing phenomenon.
Now in its tenth month of publication, The New European - the award-winning pop-up newspaper aimed at those who wanted to remain in the European Union - has far exceeded the four-week shelf-life editor Kelly originally gave it - and has managed to build itself a loyal and paying readership.
If anyone’s surprised it’s Kelly himself, who tells me he didn’t think the newspaper would make it past the first 28 days - especially after Trinity Mirror's attempt at launching a newspaper, The New Day, had crashed and burned so quickly just a few months prior.
“It was a really inauspicious time for launching a newspaper...If we hadn’t launched it in nine days, we’d have talked ourselves out of it I am positive,” says Kelly, who is also chief content officer of the newspaper's publisher Archant.
“I think building in obsolescence to the model was a very smart move because it took a lot of pressure off. I hoped it would be successful but I didn’t think it would be as sustainable as it’s proven to be.”
The New European went to print on 8 July 2016 to become the fastest British newspaper to ever hit the shelves, just nine days after conception.
The launch edition sold an estimated 40,000 copies, with subsequent weekly sales securing the lifespan of the pro-European paper on a rolling basis.
The paper currently sells around 20,000 to 25,000 copies each week - on top of its 5,000 subscribers, which Kelly says are growing at several hundred a week.
Given its steady circulation and affluent, AB-heavy readership - 70% are male, 75% are over 45 and 25% earn more than £60,000 a year - it is perhaps surprising that it has struggled to attract attention from advertisers.
In August 2016, as it entered its second month on newsstands across the UK, The New European opened up its pages to auction and invited media agencies and brands to bid for commercial space - but to little enthusiasm.
My job now is to get the paper so it feels like it’s not just beating people over the head about Brexit"
"We dropped the bidding model because it didn’t work," Kelly says. "The advertising market is in such a state of flux that it was a good try to be innovative but the reaction was disappointing.
"I think it speaks to the fixed nature of print advertising; it is hard to move how ads are bought and sold and it is hard for a new entrant into the market place to get into the mix of that."
The initial attempt at advertising might have failed - and Kelly is still open to testing new models - but the £2 cover price and subscription model seems to be doing enough to keep it going for now.
A gap in the market
Kelly tells me the inspiration for The New European was simple - and goes right back to his roots growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s.
"As a teenager I used to carry the Indy under my arm every day to show everyone how independent I was; that I’d bought into the community. When Brexit happened that was the thought that inspired the email to my boss - what paper would you pick up to say you were one of the 48%?"
This is where Kelly saw a gap in the market - arguably left unoccupied by the Guardian - for publisher Archant, which describes itself as apolitical, to fill.
"The Guardian’s readership is split down the middle, and for the values they represent they go to great lengths to be balanced," Kelly says.
"We’re playing the same game that the Daily Mail plays in that we’re shouting very strongly for something our audience believes in passionately; we’re not sitting, as some other media do, worrying about half of our readers being pro-Brexit.
"It’s very hard to demonstrate your allegiance to the Remain community; The New European says something about you and that was a big part of the ethos."
Although it is pro-European, Kelly, a life-long Labour supporter, tells me The New European has no political bias - "[TNE] is not a polarised, political paper in that old [left vs right] definition of politics; it’s a new newspaper reflecting a new community that transcends traditional politics" - and is not backing any party in the upcoming snap General Election on 8 June.
Stuck inside the London - and media - bubble myself, I wonder whether the appeal of The New European is confined to the UK’s capital and surrounding pro-Remain areas.
The newspaper certainly feels like a product for the so-called London metropolitan elite - and Kelly jokes that the circulation figures are sometimes so low in the North East that he wonders whether the team has got the numbers wrong - but Archant says the paper also sells particularly well in the South East and North West of England, although there are no official stats at present (Kelly says an ABC audit is on the cards).
Editorially, The New European's model is unique and clearly suits its pop-up nature - and it makes you wonder whether the future of the once noisy and bustling national newsroom is a quiet and lonely one.
Kelly, who was a journalist for the Mirror in the late 90s through to the mid-2000s, says there's an inevitability that the number of staff on newspapers will get smaller as the newspaper industry moves from a high fixed-cost base to a high flexible-cost base - and expects other publishers to experiment with the pop-up model as society becomes more granular.
"Instead of having huge amounts of fixed, full-time staff we can move to a position where you’re commissioning in a lot of content," Kelly says.
"So you have smaller staff but you’re spending money with freelancers [which] means if times do get a lot tougher, cyclically you can contract without having to sack loads of people."
Indeed, while The New European has around 40 contributors - including Alastair Campbell as editor-at-large - it has just one permanent member of staff: its news editor Jasper Copping.
And it looks like they won't be asking Tony Blair to contribute again any time soon after Kelly tells me there was a significant slump in sales during the week the former PM made his debut. (Awkwardly, it was Blair who approached The New European.)
Fight fire with fire
The New European entered the market at an especially eventful and turbulent time for British politics - and, with no allegiance to any political party, had to find itself a unique and trusted voice within the UK's partisan press.
It is because of this partisan nature - especially in an era of Trump and fake news - that Kelly says it has never been more important to "shout loud".
"If you’re living in politically intense times and if what you perceive to be the opposition has an absolute disregard for the truth and is purely appealing to people’s emotions, then I think it’s equally as important to engage people in the same way: to fight fire with fire," he says.
"There’s a danger that the progressive, left-wing media are bringing a knife to a gun-fight on this one. It would be lovely to think in the future we will come back to a balanced society but I suspect this isn’t a cyclical, sociological change; I think society is getting more granular and views are getting more extreme as we’re much happier as audiences living in little niches."
Kelly describes himself as argumentative and a little bit bombastic, and makes no apology for the "unwavering nature" of The New European's editorial stance.
He also thinks young people should be properly educated about how media and politics work - and says teaching it in schools should be mandatory.
It was a political schism that helped the birth of The New European. But can a pro-EU newspaper survive once the UK has actually settled the divorce?
Kelly, like a lot of people, is still clinging on to the possibility that Britain will remain in the EU, but he is optimistic that there is still life for The New European once Brexit is finalised.
"We’ve worked very hard over the last 10 months building a community of like-minded people who share value systems," he says. "The values are bigger than the cause - and if we can create a product that speaks to those values I think we’ve got a sustainable business.
"The opportunity is much broader than people suspect. My job now is to get the paper so it feels like it’s not just beating people over the head about Brexit - that it’s a much broader, interesting read."
In future, if the subscription base grows enough, Kelly wonders if there will be an opportunity to turn the newspaper, currently printed in Berliner format, into a high-quality tabloid - or something similar to The Times literary supplement, The New Statesman or The Spectator. Or perhaps even something in between.
Right now, it's still early days but for such a nimble operation the possibilities appear many.
Kelly would also like to invest more time and money into the title's digital offering. While it has a fully-functioning website, the majority of tablet content is only available in PDF format.
But if the time does come - whether that's in weeks, months or years - how will Kelly know when to call it a day?
"When people stop buying it," he says - and it's as simple as that.
"The most liberating part of the whole thing was this idea of pop-up publishing and if it didn’t succeed it wasn’t a disaster.
"If it runs out of steam, that was baked into the plan from day one."