Is the print newspaper dying?
True Up, the London Growth Hacking agency, take a look at what the Independent going digital-only means for the future of news.
In the biggest news story about newspapers themselves since the News of the World closed down in 2011, the Independent is to go digital only from the end of March. The owner, Evgeny Lebedev, has also sold the sister brand, the “i” for £24m (which will continue printing under its new owners, Johnston Press). But is it a good idea?
As announced at the end of last week, the Independent will launch a new subscription-model app, which appears to be their new approach to making more money from the digital side. This is something that every newspaper is trying to crack, from the Daily Mail’s sidebar-of-shame-led SEO strategy to the Guardian’s voluntary subscription model, as well as the Wall Street Journal’s limited free articles strategy. In fact, Steve Brill, the journalist and creator of Court TV, described newspaper bosses as ‘clueless about paid content”.
Lebedev has promised that by concentrating all of their efforts on their digital publication, they will bring “the spirit of a start-up and all the authority of their heritage”. While making some staff redundant, they will be creating new content roles.
This is far from the first risk that Lebedev (the son of a former KGB agent, which is not something you get to write often about people) has taken since he joined the publishing world. Within his first year, he took the long-running Evening Standard and turned it into a free newspaper, spotting a gap in a new market created by the now-deceased London Lite and the London Paper.
Dropping the print edition is a bold statement. It’s certainly disruptive, and that’s where we immediately get interested. As Andrew Marr (one of their former editors) pointed out, likening it to BBC3’s recent similar change, the Independent is “only the first to do this”.
It’s clear why it’s an attractive route. Physical newspapers are expensive things to print and distribute, and it immediately removes one of the largest costs. As online advertising becomes more targeted and data-driven, it makes it a more viable route for publishers. However, it’s not all that straightforward either — ad-blockers are becoming more widely-used as well as more comprehensive.
At the end of the day, it’s all about fitting the product to your market. It’s not particularly surprising that the two UK newspapers with the highest number of downloads, average reviews and number of reviews on Google Play (and notably similar on iTunes) are the Guardian and the Daily Mail — both of which are seen as being at the further ends of the political spectrum and talking to a more specific readership. The other standout is currently the Financial Times, which concentrates on a more specific area than most newspapers.
In all these cases, the market and the product are fairly tightly matched. And they tend to generate passionate readers as a result. The Independent, currently, is trailing on these fronts, turning up in the low-to-mid ranges for reviews, downloads and download numbers. And they take pride in describing themselves as being free from political bias.
But this could be a good thing. The BBC is comparatively politically neutral compared to some sites (or at least is criticised roughly equally for being too left wing and too right wing at the same time), and they have over 5 million downloads on Google Play.
If the Independent has concluded that the amount of effort to grow their print edition numbers isn’t likely to bring the rewards they’d need to see, then it makes sense to concentrate on the digital edition. After all, there’s plenty of ground they could gain there.
And if they concentrate on improving their digital offering, as well as making sure the content appeals as much as possible, they could change the game that they’re in. Rather than competing with the Sun, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, they could be competing with the Huffington Post or Reuters.
By concentrating on the areas that they can demonstrably improve (their apps and digital strategy), the Independent could stand a decent chance of disrupting the news market more than they ever have before. At the very least, they could be gaining ground before anybody else catches up.
While we may think it’d be an impossibly large change to see printed daily news die out, it wasn’t that long ago we’d have thought the same about physical plane tickets or even phone books. The simple fact is that if printed news stops making business sense, the news industry will evolve.
A quick postscript. In order to take the image above, I found that it’s not as easy to buy a newspaper as it used to be. I passed six convenience stores, and one that labelled itself as a newsagent. None of them sell newspapers anymore. It took a long walk before I finally found a newsagents that still sold newspapers.
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These were some thoughts by Chris Brosnahan, who is a content strategist at True Up, the London growth hacking agency. True Up works with companies of all sizes, using data and creativity to help them grow their business or boost campaigns.