Trinity/Express deal: sad, inevitable and a pathfinder

12 Feb 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Trinity/Express deal: sad, inevitable and a pathfinder

Following the biggest shake-up in newspaper ownership in over a decade, Dominic Mills wonders if legacy media owners - even in different sectors - will feel inspired to follow

The first reaction to the announcement last week that Trinity Mirror is buying the Express, Star and other titles from Richard Desmond is this: what took so long? Talks have been taking place for well over a year, during which time circulations have continued to slide. Some urgency might have been a good thing.

Next is a feeling of sadness, because the deal reflects the ongoing mayhem in publishing. Two once great titles - at their peaks several decades ago the Mirror and the Express sold a combined 9m copies a day - are but a shadow of their former selves. Today, including the Star (but excluding the Sundays), the total is 1.35m.

Extraordinarily, today’s total gives the combined group about 24% of the market, which tells all you need to know about the state of play.

The late Peter Preston had it bang on when, well over a year ago, he compared the merger to two ageing, starving, skeletal beings huddling together in a lifeboat for warmth. Two skeletons do not naturally a healthy body make.

A certain inevitability therefore hung over the deal. But even five years ago, such a merger would have been beyond the imagination. The papers stood at opposite ends of the spectrum, both politically and in terms of ownership: the Express part of a renegade, strident right-wing, chippy, sod-the-lot-of-you stable, the Mirror part of a faceless corporate entity.

The whys and wherefores of the deal don’t need much explanation, but the Guardian does it well here: both parties are squeezed by falling circulations, declining print ad revenues and possessing online audiences which, while decent enough on one level, hardly dent the scoreboard in the wider world.

So the question then is whether others will follow, not just newsbrands but legacy media owners in different sectors - particularly the print-based magazine brands, but also OOH and perhaps even radio.

Yes, consolidation is inevitable. But for newsbrands that might be it for a while. Mergers are easier when egos can be placed to one side. But the current newsbrand ownership structure, made up for the most part by rich individuals (the Barclay brothers, the Lebedevs, the Murdochs, the Harmsworths), or in the case of the Guardian a trust, mean there is too much pride and ego at stake. And that’s before you even get to any personal or organisational enmity between the various players.

It’s hard, therefore, to see who will team up with who.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt the other titles will be watching the performance of the new combined group very closely. Any signs that enhanced scale is making a difference, even one as slight as a slowing of revenue decline, may well see Mirror/Express rivals look again at some form of combined sales operation.

I still can’t understand why what seemed like a logical, in some ways far-sighted, plan to combine newsbrand sales just collapsed last year. But the fact that they couldn’t decide what to call the plan - known variously as Projects Juno, Rio and Arena - underlines the difficulties. If they couldn’t agree on a name, what chance did they have agreeing anything else?

Still, at least the Guardian, Telegraph and News UK did salvage something from the Project Rio failure, in the form of a combined operation focusing on premium video, and that may prove to be the vehicle through which closer co-operation emerges.

As Richard Desmond sails off to count his cash, run his charity and play his drums, I can’t help recalling a brush with the man and his top henchman while at Media Week.

Some offence had been caused (despite the fact that Express executives liked to play the ‘don’t-mess-with-us, we’re-real-bruisers’ persona, they were surprisingly quick to over-react to any perceived slight) and dire retribution was threatened.

A conference call was agreed, with Mr D apparently in the room and listening, the theory, I suppose, being that his fearsome reputation would bring us to our knees.

Express henchman: “Unless you apologise on the front page we’re going to sue and cancel all our advertising.”

MW: “But you don’t spend any money with us.”

Henchman: “We’re going to cancel all our subscriptions.”

MW: “But it’s a controlled-circulation title...there are no subscriptions to cancel.”

Henchman: “Richard, you’re furious, aren’t you? You’ve got the lawyers on the case, haven’t you?”

MW: “We haven’t heard from your lawyers, and you haven’t specified the problem.”

Henchman: “Richard...we’re not going to take this lying down, are we? He’s personally hurt...aren’t you Richard?”

MW: “Why don’t you put him on the phone?”

Henchman: “I can’t. He’s got to go to a meeting and I can’t transfer you anyway.”

To this day I have no idea whether he was there or not. But it was a rare moment of amusement in an otherwise grim day. And I can’t recall the resolution.



Impact and context vs scale

Established media’s fight against the scale offered by the duopoly feels like pushing water uphill. But every little helps. So while they do everything they can to add scale (i.e. merging), the trick is to find a battle ground where they can win.

To this end a study, released last week by Newsworks and the Association of Online Publishers unveils another tactic. The key is banging the drum for context and quality of environment - i.e. premium.

Working with brain scientists NeuroInsight, the results show that that ads seen in a premium context are viewed for longer (+17%), create 29% higher engagement (personal relevance) and generate greater levels of left brain (+42%) and right brain (+9%) memory encoding than ads on social media (Facebook and YouTube).

In a nutshell, ads seen within a premium context also elicit stronger, more positive emotional responses. It’s effectively a dig at audience-first planning.

But as the study acknowledges, social media may have a role, insofar as it gives the viewer an immediate, holistic impression of the brand, albeit one that is not converted into any long-term effects.

Is this a surprise to me? Not really; it falls under confirmation bias. But that is not to say it is not useful or illuminating to others. I don’t think it will change media buying behaviour overnight, but as the debate on audience vs context takes hold, it is useful ammunition.

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VanessaClifford, CEO, Newsworks on 13 Feb 2018
“Regarding scale, let’s not forget that newsbrands’ daily reach across print and online stands at 16 million in the UK, so not exactly ailing (especially as that doesn’t include mobile, which will be incorporated into the new audience measurement for publishers). Perhaps more importantly, newsbrands are reaching readers in an engaged, contextually relevant and safe environment. Scale is and will always be part of the equation for advertisers, but needs to be balanced with security and saliency.

And as for an alternative to “legacy media owners”, I’d suggest “established media” - equally clear but without the “old world” connotations, which don’t fit with today’s multi-platform, innovative and evolving media.”
DominicMills, Editor at large, Mediatel on 12 Feb 2018
“Oh dear. I hadn't anticipated that my view on the Mirror/Express groups' merger would be seen in such a harsh light, or lead to me being painted as Mr Negative.

Indeed, it never ocurred to me as I wrote it that I was being negative (and trust me, I know when I am).

Was I being negative about the merger per se? No, although I see it as sad that two once-formidable groups are laid low.

Was I being negative about the difference between the inventory offered by newsbrands (and other premium publishers) and that from the duopoly, and the longer-term beneficial effects the former offers advertisers -- as detailed in the second story? Definitely not.

Was I being negative about the failure of the newsbrands to agree a join sales offering? Yes, to some extent, but tempered by the fact -- as I make clear -- that at least there is some collaboration in premium video sales and that, in time, may lead to more. Er, broadly positive then.

Still, there is one area I partly disagree with Mr Hugh. He says the change in consumption habits is the biggest challenge. That challenge is real, I agree, but the same across all publishers/media owners -- and it is ongoing. But for legacy media owners (if there is a different term, better than legacy, please let me know) the relative lack of scale is for me a bigger challenge.
More glass half full then.”
NickHugh, CEO, Telegraph Media Group on 12 Feb 2018
“Another extraordinarily negative article from Dominic. Finds the negative in every positive. Change in consumption habits = key challenge, which combining ad sales teams doesn’t solve. Surely time to ‘judge’ news brands across print & digital. This is 2018 not 1998.”
bob wootton, principal, Deconstruction on 12 Feb 2018
“Love the story about the phone conference with the Express. Reminds me of said protagonist's aggressive but generally rather crap style. He made a pile of dough working for Desmond, though. The bigger picture as you say is a massive game of chicken between egos and desperate commercial imperatives.”

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