How newspaper brands survive the meltdown (part 1)

In this two-part guest post, Colin Morrison draws lessons from the business plans of several publishing empires as they cope – more or less successfully – with market forces destroying their print profits.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | June 23, 2017

Daily newspapers were the original ‘media industry’. That’s why executives are so tormented by the shredding of the news. They’ve been waiting for a grateful world to gift them a digital future. Newspaper owners – and a lot of other people too – can’t imagine a world without these legendary news brands. But they get a lot of encouragement.

The UK election campaign is the latest reminder that a whole generation of pre-digital politicians still attaches disproportionate importance to print journalism. The obsession is nurtured by the country’s TV and radio news channels which devote many hours each day to reviewing the content of newspapers and screening the front pages. So, British voters go to the polls knowing exactly how The Sun tabloid is urging its readers to vote – even though its circulation is 70% less than 25 years ago when it pompously claimed the credit for an election victory: “It’s The Sun wot won it”. But the “many see, few buy” state of UK newspapers (which actually might be missed by the millennials who never bought papers) helps to obscure the reality of their decline. They may be only in the first stage of an increasingly painful disruption:

Disruption 1.0: Fragmentation

The first-stage disruption was the hammer-blow fragmentation of a media market once dominated by newspapers. The technology which has given consumers more media than they can possibly consume has also given businesses virtually unlimited places to put advertising. The realisation that print-centric media must adjust to “only” one revenue stream (like almost everyone else) is the wake-up call. But, despite Mary Meeker’s latest assertion that print still gets much more advertising than is justified by its shrinking share of audience time (see leftmost column of chart below), publishers are in denial.

(Source: Kleiner Perkins Global Internet Trends 2017)

Many of the UK’s national dailies are, for example, currently inflating their circulation figures by up to 20% with free copies, in vain efforts to compete for those vanishing ad revenues. They can’t get their heads or spreadsheets round the fact that spoilt-for-choice readers will increasingly pay only for distinctive content not for the freely-available general news. But that low-value news stubbornly continues to dominates the content – and costs – of most daily newspapers.

The future winners will be those able to exploit the increasingly clear distinction between two broad types of competitive media:

  1. Free, mass-market content funded by advertising or sponsorship.
  2. Reader-funded content without (any or much) advertising.

All types of media (whether in print, digital or broadcast) will be able to thrive as either type of media. Only a small number of exceptional brands will be able to straddle the two.

End of the news ‘department store’

For most, it will be the end of daily newspapers as “department stores” of news, information and entertainment – and of sky-high staffing levels funded by once-booming advertising revenues. If they don’t narrow their focus and exploit distinctive content like political analysis, these traditional news brands risk losing out to digital specialists like the burgeoning Politico in the US and Europe. Sport is another area of traditional newspaper content that risks being lost to specialist providers if newspaper brands don’t give readers the opportunity to buy it separately from the ‘bundle’. It is all part of the need for these print-based ‘product producers’ seriously to become multi-channel ‘service providers’.

But they need a new business model and a fundamentally different approach to costs. The daily newspapers’ traditional luxury of paying for multiple sources – staff, contributors and news agencies – to provide even freely-available general news coverage must come to a grinding halt, along with their out-dated approach to selecting content for publication only after it has been produced.

There’s nothing wrong with providing general low-value, non-exclusive news to complement high-value exclusive content – as long as you don’t expect readers to pay much for it.

The increasingly inefficient system of casual street sales of newspapers will also disappear along with many of the retailers which once depended on them: only subscriptions and membership will make sense for paid-for news, whether in print or digital. Having a direct relationship with (and data on) readers is valuable whether or not you sell advertising. But the cost squeeze will intensify as these legacy businesses try to hang on to readers that may – for a long time yet – be inconveniently and expensively divided between print and digital.

Disruption 2.0: Newscasting

Next comes the accelerating video competition for traditional news brands which have already been struggling to keep up with the smartphone news of low-cost, digital-only operators. The increasingly global TV news channels will upstage most newspapers which are already behind the pace in the consumer demand for video and (coming soon) virtual reality. Moreover, the rapid growth in on-demand TV viewing will help the news-only channels to capture large audiences that have long been ‘locked-up’ by the news bulletins of mass market television networks. So, mass audiences that want news in video and on-demand will not be coming back to newspaper-like content, whether in print or online. But there’s worse.

The news disruption may be accelerated by the growth of voice-activated technology like Amazon’s Echo (in photo below), Google Home and Apple’s HomePod.

These “smart speakers” drew the fire of WPP boss Martin Sorrell who identified them as a new threat to the advertising industry. In practice, they will be challenging all media channels. Echo et al will soon offer all kinds of content at the expense of the media brands that have already been air-brushed by social media. Consumers will be able to choose scheduled ‘push services’ like wake-up news bulletins, podcasts, sports news and weather reports via these speakers. Perhaps music will be meshed into it too, to create personalised radio to compete with streamers and broadcasters. Jeff Bezos’s learnings from the Washington Post will not be wasted in this birth of Newscasting. On-demand audio and video could squeeze the life out of all but the best news brands. But the disruption won’t stop there.

Disruption 3.0: Journopreneurs.

Newspaper executives make much of the supposed risk to the survival of high-value journalism posed by the decline of print. But the rapid growth of not-for-profit digital services – and the reader-revenue success of political magazines and digital ‘explainer’ journalism – is helping to disprove that. Easy-to-use, low-cost tech and the loud-hailer of social media are creating a boom in small-scale, citizen and home-made journalism. But a coming explosion in high-quality blogging and free or low-cost journalism will attack newspaper-centric businesses from all too familiar sources: their own journalists.

These news companies find themselves out-paced by digital rivals whose tech-savvy teams are younger and leaner. For all the salami-slice cost-cutting of recent years (many with staff reductions averaging 50%), most daily newspapers are still heavily over-staffed. The unrelenting squeeze on revenues will ultimately force newspapers to lay-off large numbers of experienced journalists and, as a result, expose themselves to an explosion of Journopreneurs. Blogs, news services and ‘push’ emails everywhere will effectively be funded by newspapers’ severance payments. The legacy news brands will unwittingly be funding their next competitors.

As a result, news will become a much smaller business than it is now. But there will still be plenty of it. The independent provision of news – whether local, national or global – is not going to disappear, even though some of its most profligate providers will.

More than just cost-cutting

It is a whole decade since former Harvard professor Clark Gilbert first urged newspaper companies to separate new digital operations from their traditional businesses, before successfully putting his “dual transformation” theories to work at Deseret Media. Gilbert was proving the point that the quite distinct streams of new and old media require different people, skills, investment horizons and – in each case – single-minded management. The important takeaway was the need for a new plan, not merely a tweak of an old one. The search for a new business model is so much more than merely cutting costs. Of course.

It is clear that the likely winners among major newspaper publishers will be those with the unswerving support of long-term shareholders – and/or alternative businesses to fill the gap left by the loss of news revenues. Prominent among these will be a global clutch of family-controlled companies which are busy digitalising away from the print businesses that had once made them rich and powerful.

Hearst: what disruption?

The world’s first media company was created 130 years ago in 1887 when (William) Randolph Hearst (in photo) transformed his single San Francisco newspaper into a media company with the acquisition of newspapers, magazines and pioneering movie and newsreel productions. Sixty-six years after his death, the company has become a post-digital role model with more than 360 businesses and 20,000 employees in 130 countries. From being a company once known primarily for its newspapers and global magazines like Cosmopolitan, Hearst now makes far more profit from its fast-growing business-to-business information companies.

It generates high-value data, analytics and software for the healthcare, finance and automotive industries and utilities around the world. Its largest company is the 80%-owned Fitch credit ratings group.

But Hearst still makes more of its profit from broadcasting than anything else, which includes substantial earnings from shareholdings in businesses managed by its hand-picked partners. It has more than 30 television stations such as WCVB in Boston and KCRA in Sacramento, reaching almost 20% of US homes. Its long-established A+E Networks JV with Disney has the cable TV channels A+E, History, Lifetime, Crime & Investigation, Biography, and Vice Media’s new Viceland.

These highly profitable TV interests have often been dwarfed, though, by Hearst’s 20% share of the Disney-controlled ESPN, long the world’s most successful sports cable network. Over the past 25 years, ESPN has thrown off huge amounts of cash for its owners. Some years, it has generated 50% of Hearst’s total profit (a role now taken on by Fitch, just as ESPN itself fights decline).

As Hearst redoubles its efforts to find fresh businesses that will transform profitability like magazines and cable TV once did, its investment policy may shift in the direction of the acquisition of Complex Media (50m monthly uniques and 300m monthly video views) by a Hearst joint venture with the US broadband-telco Verizon. Ever since its initial stake 21 years ago in the once-dominant Netscape, Hearst has been one of the most successful media-tech corporate investors with more than $1bn invested in companies including BuzzFeed, Vice, HootSuite, Caavo, LiveSafe, Roku, Science Inc, LiveSafe, Stylus, Swirl, and MobiTV. It’s a great talent spotter in more ways than one.

Buried somewhere in the glowing testimony of high-growth media is Hearst’s original newspaper business which now has the lowest profit among the company’s media divisions. But the quietly reinvented business is doing better than most of its peers. With more than 4,000 employees, it publishes 17 dailies and 57 weeklies in Texas, California, and New York state. Its local digital services have also grown by an average of 14% for the last four years and have more than 30m monthly uniques.

The real achievement of this legacy business, however, is that the Houston Chronicle has become one of the world’s most profitable daily newspapers.

The figures are closely guarded but the 115-year-old daily may be making profits of more than $60m – or over 50% of all the profit made by Hearst’s 70+ newspapers.

What is the largest newspaper in Texas and the sixth-largest newspaper in the US has successfully developed into a multi-media company producing a portfolio of print and online products serving Houston’s diverse audiences, in English and Spanish. The Houston Chronicle has successfully built and maintained its market leadership by building paid-for as well as free distribution businesses, as follows:

  • The paid-for flagship daily complemented by local weeklies and branded editions.
  • A market-leading free web site (Chron) which is distinct from the paid-for site for newspaper subscribers.

More than anything else, the two-site strategy is a neat (and obvious when you think about it) way to out-compete the digital-only competition while building a strong digital presence for subscribers for whom the paid-for web site (with its 1m paying viewers) is a bridge from print to digital.

The Houston Chronicle performance is crucial to Hearst’s newspaper group which, despite its shrinking importance to the parent company, grew 2016 profits for the fifth consecutive year. Hearst Corp total revenues last year were some $10.8bn. Although that revenue was only 1% up on 2015, it has grown by 140% in the past decade. Even the realisation that the numbers are flattered by revenues from the $2bn spent on acquisitions during the year, serves to underline the powering reinvention of a media group whose pre-tax profits are now more than $1bn. For all the disruption of its once-dominant print businesses, the so-versatile Hearst has scarcely missed a beat.

News Corp: ‘the other business’

Rupert Murdoch was the successor to Randolph Hearst as a fearsome global media strategist. But more so. He used his once-booming newspapers in Australia, the UK and US to build a conglomerate in movies, books, digital services and TV.

Murdoch’s two public companies, News Corp and 21st Century Fox, have a combined market value of $58bn. But the value of News Corp is scarcely a tenth of the total value of the two companies which together were known as News Corporation, until the 2013 demerger. The company now includes Harper Collins book publishing, Foxtel Pay TV in Australia, US coupon distribution, Dow Jones Newswires, the Wall Street Journal, and largely loss-making metropolitan and national daily newspapers in its three core countries.

News Corp has revenues of some $8bn, almost 25% of which are derived from the Australian, British and American newspapers. But profits tell a different story. The newspaper losses are obscured in the company’s accounts by its powering US coupon company. This company, the digital real estate media (primarily REA in Australia and Move Inc in the US) and book publishing accounts for all the News Corp profit – and all its growth.

These powering businesses, especially the property media (with revenue up 13% in the past year) has provided cover for the core newspapers which are now starting to deliver the required shift to digital subscriptions:

  • Wall Street Journal subscribers are now 53% digital and are up 44% in the past year to an average 1.2m.
  • The Australian newspapers have increased digital subs by 27% to 333,400.
  • The switch in The London Times to three editions daily seems to be paying off with viewership up almost 40% on its smartphone app. The Times and Sunday Times now have 185,000 digital subscribers. The Times is launching The Brief, a premium website and subscriber events for legal readers. It signals a new area of paid-for expansion which, in the future, might include B2B vertical media targeting professionals in politics, culture, property and retailing.
  • The Sun’s (now free) digital service reached more than 80m global uniques in March 2017 – up from 36m. This growth, alongside the interesting UK acquisition of TalkSport radio, shows that The Sun could soon be head-to-head with BuzzFeed and Daily Mail Online.

News Corp shares its Murdoch family senior management with 21st Century Fox but News Corp is their ‘other business’ and, despite Rupert Murdoch’s own sentimental attachment, newspapers are right at the bottom of the pile for his sons and heirs.

New York Times: ‘all services fit to test’

The New York Times is the whole business, not a reducing priority in a media conglomerate. It illustrates, therefore, what can be done with an endlessly patient and focused owner. A newspaper that was once all print and mostly casual street-sale readers in the US is now seen to be strongly subscriptions, increasingly digital and global. The company, which now has 3.2m subscribers (2.2m digital) had $399m of revenue in the first quarter of 2017, including a stunning 400k subscribers to the daily crossword puzzle.

So, it is that Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the newspaper’s third-generation family majority shareholder, told Wired magazine of his plan to make digital subscriptions the main engine of a billion-dollar business, inspired by Netflix and Spotify. The company was investing in its core journalism while adding new online services and features (from personalized fitness advice and interactive newsbots to virtual reality films) so that a subscription became indispensable to paying subscribers in the US and internationally.

The milestones are impressive:

  • In the first quarter of this year, it added 308k digital-only news subs. Circulation revenue from digital-only subscriptions increased by 40% to $75.8m. Its online site has some 90m monthly uniques.
  • “The Daily,” the newspaper’s brilliant daily podcast, introduced in February, already has more than 27m downloads and streams and is on track to exceed 100m this year. Many expect the launch of a business version of the podcast during 2017.
  •  The New York Times now has 13m email subscribers – doubled in three years, on the back of no fewer than 50 newsletters “pushed” to subscribers on a wide range of subjects. These newsletter subscribers are twice as likely as regular readers to become subscribers, and they read twice as many stories per month as the average newspaper reader.
  • The newspaper is about to launch its next big paid-for product: Cooking, a three-year-old hitherto free app and site that currently has 10m monthly uniques. Readers will be able to get 10 free stories per month before having to pay up. Only a small proportion of Cooking’s bank of 17,000 recipes and articles will still be freely available and readers will also have to pay for a time-saving “Your Recipe Box” feature.

Many newspapers (and not just in the US) have benefitted from a rise in readership as a result of the almost daily comments of President Trump, ironically their harshest critic. His tweets and speeches have created huge volumes of news traffic. They have helped the New York Times to grow an international online audience, alongside its print edition (formerly known as the International Herald Tribune).

But the innovations show that New York’s favourite broadsheet is fast becoming much more than a news provider. Its historic slogan “All the News that’s Fit to Print” might almost become “All the services fit to be tested”.

> To Part 2 of this post

Colin Morrison is a director and consultant of digital, media, and information companies, principally in the UK, Europe, and AsiaPacific.

He was previously CEO of international media and digital companies for Reed Elsevier, EMAP, Australian Consolidated Press, Axel Springer, Future, and Hearst. He has been widely involved in media partnerships with organisations including the BBC, Hearst, Springer, Dennis, Sony, Microsoft, Washington Post, Press Association, and Hachette. His award-winning Flashes & Flames blog was honoured in the US Folio:100 as “an insightful and entertaining mind in a wobbly industry.”

This post was republished with permission from his blog. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of WAN-IFRA.

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