Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Newspapers’ bitter prospects for survival

“It is. Are you?” The Independent newspaper’s launch slogan would not sound quite so convincing today. At the time it came into existence in 1986, it thrived on being different from the pack of other broadsheets. However, nobody at the time would have contemplated a newspaper that shared information technology, payroll or personnel functions with a rival group.

While not as radical as the Independent plans, there have been other recent signs the broader industry is embracing changes that would once have been unthinkable.

Five years ago, the idea that one national newspaper would entrust even its printing to the presses of its main rival would have been ridiculed. But this year production of the Telegraph titles shifted to the new and sophisticated Hertfordshire presses of the Times owner, News International.

It is a sign of the times, analysts say. In 2002, 12.8m national newspapers were sold on an average day. This year, it was fewer than 11m and in 2013 it will be slightly above 9m, according to Enders Analysis, the media research specialist.

Advertising revenue across national titles is predicted to fall from £1.9bn last year – a figure broadly flat over the previous five years – to £1.2bn within five years.

“There is no ‘out of the woods’ moment for the UK national press,” Enders analysts said in a recent note, “as the industry will reposition at a lower level of advertising revenue from 2010 and continue to decline.”

The conclusion of the Enders analysis is that, without consolidation or radical cost savings, nine titles under the aegis of the Independent, Mirror and Express groups, may face “divestment or even closure within six years”.

Hard times have made for strange bedfellows in what used to be Fleet Street. The diaspora of the 1980s, with newspaper groups leaving EC4 for Canary Wharf, Wapping, Kensington High Street and south of the Thames, is being reversed, albeit in a small way.

The migration of the Independent and Independent on Sunday’s staff to the Kensington HQ of Daily Mail & General Trust in January is seen by the people who run Britain’s newspapers as the first manifestation of an emerging trend.

“Some pretty bizarre conversations have been going on within our industry,” the head of one national newspaper organisation told the Financial Times. “The Express recently asked the Independent for an estimate of how much it would cost to provide business coverage for them.”

It is strongly rumoured that another group recently offered to provide full editorial coverage – news, sport, business, features and everything else – to a rival for a sum of money.

In such an extreme scenario, a newspaper would only need to employ a few designers and sub-editors to knock editions into shape and a small cadre of commentators and famous names to provide a distinctive voice. The offer was apparently politely declined, but on the grounds it was too expensive rather than unworkable.

A former British newspaper owner, who asked not to be named, said: “The plain truth is that there is an oversupply of newspapers and an undersupply of advertising revenue.

“But there is no lack of demand for information, for intelligent comment, for good journalistic writing. It is just a question of being innovative with regard to using the web and keeping your costs under as great control as possible.”

Douglas McCabe, one of the Enders analysts, said a catastrophic decline in national newspaper display advertising has combined with a structural change that has seen the internet emerge as a key rival. “What it means is meltdown for newspapers,” he said.

As a consequence, newspaper owners will need synergies and consolidation, if not of whole companies, then within groups or possibly alliances across the industry.

“God knows they have got to get together and have those sorts of conversations,” added Mr McCabe.

By Ben Fenton, Chief Media Correspondent

No comments: