Webinar takeaways: What is next in newspaper production? Cases from Belgium and Australia

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought many challenges to newspapers and their production operations.

by Elizabeth Shilpa | May 13, 2020

However, during a WAN-IFRA webinar last week, Marcus Hooke, General Manager of Production at News Corp Australia, and Paul Huybrechts, Managing Director of Printing Partners, Belgium, pointed out that it has not all been doom and gloom and better days might lie ahead. The webinar, titled “COVID-19: What is next in newspaper production?” was hosted by World Printers Forum Director Ingi Rafn Olafsson and saw about 80 registrations from around the world.

Situation in Australia

  • First COVID-19 case in January
  • As of today, more than 6,900 cases
  • The country has been under lockdown since March
  • Current talks about loosening restrictions and resuming work

Effects at News Corp

  • News Corp runs about 10 print centres in the country
  • Print centres have been under lockdown since March
  • Work-from-home measures started at the company very early
  • Printing plant workers have been split into red and blue teams that do not interact with each other.
  • As part of internal communications, daily talks with the staff on safety measures have proven to be very effective.
  • There has been a drop in newspaper sales at retail agents, but sales at supermarkets and convenience stores have seen a substantial uptick.
  • A very positive sign that newspapers continue to be the trusted source of information

Plans to come out of the pandemic

  • Rest of the financial year expected to be slow
  • Planning to maintain vigilant operations at print centres
  • Big opportunity seen in the catalogue market – the newsprint catalogue or the paper catalogue is a really good opportunity to support customers and advertising clients

The new normal

  • The past two months have proven we can work in a completely different way and do several things remotely.
  • Going forward, the company will see major changes in its property footprint.
  • It will be important to strike a balance in maintaining the benefits of collaboration that the teams need whilst getting the benefits of potentially having a lower footprint.
  • Substantial differences are not expected at the print centers.
  • Considering limiting the number of people who need to be on site.
  • Other expectations include lower pagination, typically a 16-to-24 page product, but of high volume.
  • The uptick around newsprint sales really reinforced the idea that newspapers are the trusted source of information for people in Australia. The team is thinking about how to use that strong message and make the most of it in the coming days.
  • Once the restrictions are relaxed, the company will look at how to get logistics and primary and secondary distribution networks started up again. Getting the papers in the right place at the right time when the restrictions are lifted is going to be important.

Situation in Belgium

  • First case of COVID-19 in January
  • Lockdown announced on 17 March
  • News media and newspapers declared as essential businesses
  • Kurzarbeit (fewer working hours) goes into effect and within a week about 1 million people faced temporary unemployment.
  • B2B operations are now resuming and discussions are going on about exit plans.

Impact on business at Printing Partners

  • Mediahuis, a news media publishing company, is the parent company of Printing Partners
  • The company has a turnover of more than 1 billion euros
  • A significant portion of its revenue still comes from its print products
  • The pandemic has severely affected its advertising revenue
  • Revenues from digital advertising are growing, but not compensating the decline of print advertisements.

Digital rise

  • COVID-19 has boosted sales of digital content.
  • Huge increase in visits to the media house’s websites and apps resulting in increased digital sales.
  • Content is behind paywalls, but people have shown a willingness to pay, which is promising for the future.
  • Double-digit growth of digital sales have also partly positively influenced the sales of its printed newspaper – the company offers a subscription model wherein the Saturday publication is in print, but during the week only digital content is available. This model has proven popular.
  • Pagination has decreased at newspapers in Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg due to fewer ads, the cancellation of cultural events and lack of sports content.

Going forward

  • The impact on pagination is expected to continue for months, possibly the whole year.
  • COVID-19 has shown that publishing a newspaper and generating excellent content is possible with almost everyone working from home. This experience will have a further impact on the future and the way the team works after the pandemic.
  • More and more of the company’s newspaper titles have already moved their newsrooms towards digital-first. This evolution will be further pushed by the pandemic experience and increase the pace of change in newsrooms.
  • The company is also involved with third-party printing, but many of these jobs have disappeared due to the pandemic. With many customers facing financial difficulties, it remains to be seen how much of the third-business and the third-party jobs will come back.
  • The pandemic is expected to have an effect on the number of printed copies on weekdays.
  • The printing business and the newspaper print business, especially in Europe, is expected to further consolidate.
  • Smaller printing and publishing companies will face difficult times. Newspaper printing plans should become even leaner and focus more on quality and increased flexibility.
  • Paper consumption expected to decline further.
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