As today's ABC figures show another decline in newspaper circulation, former Trinity Mirror executive Richard Webb argues that many will find ways to survive
IT is said that that cockroaches can survive a nuclear holocaust. While newspapers are facing the worst financial crisis in living memory, they too, are survivors and I wouldn't be surprised if many find ways to survive this trial.
Yes, their circulation revenues are under the cosh from declining sales and now advertising is suffering too. As profits plummet, the outlook is not good. Logic suggests we will soon be seeing multiple closures.
But the key to newspapers' survival is their unusual makeup: their value to society; the curious nature of their ownership; their potential for greater efficiency; their sheer ingenuity and resourcefulness; and the fact that many readers are still committed to them – according to the National Readership Survey the average time spent reading even the popular tabloids is about 40 minutes.
The intrinsic value of newspapers is helping the public understand the news. Breaking stories is, largely, a thing of the past for newspapers. Investigations, comment and opinion are their strengths. Driven by the desire to unearth controversy, free to be partisan, but checked by the need to maintain their credibility and reputations, they stretch debate and make an unparallelled contribution to our understanding of events and their importance. Newspapers still take a lead role in setting the daily news agenda for television, radio and the web. The world would certainly be a substantially less interesting and informed place without them.
The majority of owners understand this. Newspapers, generally, do not exist purely to turn a profit. Most are profitable, but a few operate permanently at a loss, such as the Evening Standard, which was bankrolled by a bigger group that has now cut its losses and sold it to a wealthy foreign proprietor. And we forget how recently newspapers became really profitable. Prior to Murdoch's coup at Wapping in 1986, life was much harder. A fraction of their current size, dominated by the print unions and often inefficient, many operated at or below break even. The proprietorial approach that kept them alive in those difficult times has not vanished completely.
It is clear that extreme profitability and durability are unhappy bedfellows. It is not surprising that the papers that deliver the highest margins generally tend to be the ones that suffer the biggest circulation declines. These are the most vulnerable and the likely candidates for extinction.
The Daily Express is an example of a paper being driven into the ground purely for profit. Its news content is similar to the freesheets – radio news on paper. What is surprising is not that it is losing readers as quickly as it is, but that it is not losing them faster. The paper has been so denuded of quality content that its eventual closure is a racing certainty. But perhaps out of habit or loyalty or because they still like it – whatever the reason – its circulation is eroding surprisingly slowly.
Papers are changing and two things are important to adapting to the new order: understanding what content is important and what is old hat and having the conviction to make big changes; and developing lower-cost models that allow them to survive the decline in income.
Recently, Private Eye gleefully told of a Daily Telegraph journalist who made a scathing attack on the editor and senior management. Reading it, I was nearly persuaded that the once great paper was turning into the quality equivalent of the Express. So I bought a copy. I was pleasantly surprised. A few of the big name columnists had gone, but it was a good read, the story count was higher than I had expected and the business section included one the best analyses of the financial crisis I have seen.
Right now the web is disrupting newspapers' traditional business model, providing the content without the cover price and yielding only a relative pittance of ad revenue so far. But newspapers have no choice but to publish online if they are to retain their profile, traffic and ad revenues. According to the Newspaper Marketing Agency, the time spent looking at the web versions of British national newspapers exceeds 700m minutes a month, putting them, collectively, in the top 10 most viewed sites, alongside the Google, eBay and Facebook.
With this kind of performance there is a future.