Over the last few months, we’ve spoken to nearly 100 people from all the major British newspaper brands. It’s given us a nice view into which brands are on a high and which are failing.
Amazingly, given the onslaught of digital media that is replacing them, UK newspapers will actually see advertising revenue growth next year (by 1% to £1.42 billion), only the second annual increase since 2007, according to a report from the Advertising Association and advertising analysts Warc.
That’s nice, but 1% is less than GDP growth (which is 3%) — so it’s still fairly feeble. The turnaround is being fuelled by digital ad spend. The MailOnline and Guardian are the two biggest digital English language newspapers in the world. But not all of London’s publishers have been as quick to ease their reliance on print and really shift to digital. Some of them are obviously struggling.
As we spoke to people in the London media, one over-arching theme emerged: Even at companies that desperately want to transition away from dead trees to apps, dozens of staff have their time and resources sucked out of them every day putting out a product that was at its healthiest 65 years ago in the 1950s.
This review does not claim to be a definitive account of the state of UK news media right now. Rather, it’s a definitive statement of what people are saying about the state of UK news media right now. In an industry that relies so much on heat and image, this is almost as important.
We’ve ranked their current reputations from best to worst.
1. The Guardian: in fantastic health
The search is currently underway for a new editor in chief of The Guardian, after Alan Rusbridger announced earlier this month he was stepping down after more than 20 years in the role.
Rusbridger is “Mr Guardian” and his departure will be quite literally the end of an era (even though he will still be there in spirit, as chairman of The Guardian’s unique owner and sole shareholder The Scott Trust, a huge fund that keeps the Guardian ticking over even in its darkest financial hours). He presided over some jubilant periods for paper which was once Britain’s 11th most-read newspaper and is now the second biggest English language newspaper site in the world.
The Guardian has been a pioneer in online media, having first launched a mobile app way back in 2009 and becoming one of the first publishers to launch a news service on Google Glass. It has a formidable digital studio in which it tests new products on readers.
Being a first-mover in digital has paid dividends: Guardian News & Media narrowed its losses to just over £30 million in the year to the end of March as digital revenues grew by almost a quarter (24%) to £69.5 million. That means the Guardian’s digital revenue is growing faster than the New York Times’ (11% year over year,) although from a much lower base.
The Guardian does not envision itself opening up a New York Times-style paywall any time soon, but it is looking to increase revenues via subscriptions in the form of its Membership scheme, where it is asking readers to pay anything between £15 to £60 a month for access to live events and entry into a new Guardian Space venue.
Print revenues remained flat year on year at £140 million in the 12 months to the end of March — a strong performance in a market suffering some terminal declines.
Editorially, The Guardian is still celebrating its Pulitzer Prize win this year for its unrivalled coverage of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks. The company is also expanding its global footprint, recently opening up offices in the US and Australia.
There is only one negative aspect at The Guardian: It has a massive employee headcount, many of who are overpaid but under-perform. The company can’t get rid of them because of the union, so is buttressing its efforts with younger “casual” contract workers. That situation is slowing down the pace of change at The Guardian, we hear. Nonetheless, everyone wants to work here and no one wants to leave.
2. The Daily Mail: firing on all cylinders
The Daily Mail’s online version MailOnline is far and away the biggest UK newspaper website, attracting a record 193 million worldwide monthly unique users in October, according to comScore. MailOnline is forecast to make £60 million in digital revenues this year. That’s less than The Guardian, but this is being propelled primarily through digital advertising, according to Media Week, (while the majority of The Guardian’s digital revenue is through subscriptions to platforms like its Guardian Soulmates dating service). There’s plenty of room to grow further, even if the ad market becomes unstable. Owner company Daily Mail & General Trust projects digital revenues of £100 million by 2016.
The MailOnline is currently the fourth most-visited content site in the US (behind Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and The New York Times) and has 200 employees in the region. Jon Steinberg, the ad executive MailOnline poached from BuzzFeed earlier this year to run the US operation, described MailOnline (which is rebranding to DailyMail.com in the US) as “like being a kid in a candy shop. It’s a giant site that has a huge audience, but Madison Avenue hasn’t quite discovered this yet.”
The Daily Mail’s print editorial team runs separately to MailOnline. Like the rest of the market, it too is hemorrhaging readers, with print sales down 5.33% to 1.66 million in October, according to ABC. The Daily Mail is also officially the UK’s most complained about newspaper, according to campaign group Hacked Off’s analysis of information published by the Press Complaints Commission, and the title is still known as “The Daily Hate” in some circles, thanks to its bombastic front pages and right-leaning bias.
The Mail is the only other newspaper brand that people really want to work at. It really is a beast.
3. The Daily Mirror: a turnaround in progress
Ever since Simon Fox joined The Daily Mirror’s owner Trinity Mirror as chief executive in 2012, the newspaper and its online brands have been injected with a new lease of life. Digital is firmly the focus for Fox’s turnaround strategy and the company has launched a number of standalone brands — including the BuzzFeed-style UsVsTh3m, data journalism project Ampp3d and football site Row Zed — as well as staffing up the Daily Mirror with a number of recent editorial and digital hires.The overall feel of the Mirror’s digital offering is that they get it, and they’re working hard to acquire the next generation of readers. Digital publishing revenues were up 44% year on year in the 17 weeks to October.
Fox is resolute on the company’s no-paywall strategy, saying in July: “For as long as we live in a world of a free BBC and a free Mail and a free Guardian, I don’t think it’s a realistic prospect for us to go behind a paywall. And we have no plans to do so.” Instead, The Daily Mirror and its offshoot sites must look to scale to attract digital advertisers, and it’s getting there: its national newspaper group marked a 124% increase in daily unique browsers to 3.6 million in October, according to ABC.
As with the other red tops, The Daily Mirror’s print sales are in decline (down 7.68% year on year to 936,577), and in Trinity Mirror’s latest financial update, the company reported a 12% drop in print advertising across all its titles (which also includes the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People tabloids). The Daily Mirror is also another title still feeling the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal that ripped apart Fleet Street three years ago and has set aside up to £9 million to deal with costs related to civil legal claims.
4. The Daily Telegraph: struggling to change
The Telegraph’s news product is really solid and its business desk is second only to that of the Financial Times. Nonetheless, its desktop web site is years behind the curve. And the entire organisation is struggling with the transition to digital. One problem is the paywall: Journalists know that even when they publish something great, its reach will be limited. That’s why not all of them want to complete their careers there.
The Telegraph launched the metered digital paywall last year, whereby subscribers pay from £4 a month for unlimited website and mobile app access. Those not paying get access to a limited number of articles each month.
Jason Seiken, Telegraph’s editor in chief who joined last year, has made a number of shake-ups to the editorial team since his arrival to drive the Telegraph Media Group’s “transformation.” Most recently, this month, the Telegraph hired Trinity Mirror’s Malcolm Coles to become its digital director, The Guardian reported. At the same time, there were a series of internal promotions and changes, including Kate Day’s promotion from director of digital content to director of digital media and deputy editor Robert Winnett expanding his role to look after both print and online news.
Chris Evans, Daily Telegraph editor and director of content, said in a press release announcing those changes the intent is that The Telegraph transform “into a digital-first media newsroom that also produces a fantastic newspaper.” Note that the “newspaper” is filed under “also” in that sentence.
On the print side, where The Daily Telegraph is the last remaining national newspaper to keep the large broadsheet format, circulation was down 9.21% to 498,484 in October, according to the latest ABC figures. Despite the drop, The Telegraph is still the UK’s most profitable quality newspaper, reporting a £2.7 million increase in overall operating profit to £61.2 million in 2013.
5. The Financial Times: way behind where it needs to be
The FT’s business news reportage is unparalleled except perhaps by New York’s Wall Street Journal. And it’s hidden by an extremely aggressive — and extremely expensive — paywall. This has brought joy to the company’s finance office, but the editorial side is less enthusiastic: Very few people read the FT as a result. Similar Web says FT has 17 million visitors per month compared to the WSJ’s 59 million.
This is the FT’s entire story: its digital subscriptions and advertising are doing just fine, it’s just that relatively few people see the thing.
FT writers bemoan their lack of reach among readers. They obviously get very important CEO-level readers, but that’s often not much compensation when no one else (future employers?) can see your byline. Certain senior FT editorial staff scoff at the new world of digital media. We heard one dismiss BuzzFeed’s regurgitation of trivia, for instance. BuzzFeed is expected to book a not-so-trivial $US120 million in revenues this year. So perhaps there is something to this newfangled digital business after all!
The FT has taken babysteps in the right direction: its Alphaville blog is a must-read, and its fastFT product is useful too. Its Antenna Twitter experiment looks like a hopeful sign. However the FT site and app overall still feels like they’re trying to reproduce the newspaper on the web. And the FT’s app isn’t available in the Apple App Store. That was the result of a decision in 2011 that, in hindsight, doesn’t look too smart.
We hear there is a younger generation of staff at the FT who do actually understand that the group needs to get its act together faster on the digital side. Whether management will let them do that is another question.
6. The Sun: the incredible shrinking audience
The Sun is in a period of transition on many fronts: Publisher News UK (formerly News International) is still reeling (and paying the legal bills) from the News of the World phone hacking scandal that forced the closure of the Sunday tabloid in 2011; daily print sales of The Sun dipped below 2 million for the first time in its modern history in October (according to ABC); and staff and readers are currently adjusting to its recent paid-for digital strategy.
You’d think with its penchant for popular celebrity gossip stories, investigative stings and photo-heavy reportage The Sun would have sussed how to create a solid online offering — but it’s still a work in progress. Since going behind a paywall last year, The Sun has shed visitors. It currently has 225,000 digital subscribers, the majority of which are billed at £7.99 per month, down on the 30 million uniques it was reporting when the site was free to access, according to comScore. However, it insists that the paying subscribers are more loyal, read more content and that by subscribing, the newspaper gets access to more data about its readers to be able to offer advertisers more sophisticated targeting.
It’s also generally accepted on Fleet Street that another after-effect of the News of the World fallout and subsequent Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press is that the big scoops The Sun was famed for have become fewer and further between, as its lawyers fear a reprise.
7. The Times: thundering no more
The Times is a shadow of its former self. Only 5.4 million visitors a month see the site online.
This month, News UK subsidiary Times Newspapers (which owns both The Times and Sunday Times) reported its first annual profit in 13 years, up from a loss of nearly £6 million in 2013. Total paid sales (which includes print and subscriptions to its digital paywall) for The Times were up 3% year on year to 545,000, while The Sunday Times’ figure was down 2% to 958,000.
The Thunderer swinging back into profit is only partly attributable to growing sales, however. The company recently cut down on property costs by moving to a new office near The Shard in London Bridge that it shares with Dow Jones and Harper Collins; the publisher is also reaping the rewards from improving its back-end CRM systems so that acquiring and retaining customers is far cheaper; and it is growing its Newsprinters business, which has contracts to print newspapers not only for its own titles but editions of The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and local titles.
News UK’s chief marketing officer Chris Duncan told Business Insider this month its growth figures show that the company is an “outlier and pioneer” establishing a “fair value for digital journalism.” However, there is a caveat: not all digital subscribers are equal in terms of income and value: Some, are paying a discounted price or even receiving free memberships as part of News UK’s marketing acquisition strategy (customers of mobile carrier O2, for example, are currently being offered limited-time subscriptions to The Times’ sister title The Sun as part of their package). Also, News UK counts a subscriber as someone with an active membership, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re accessing the site (think about the people who receive a free membership from their employer — or indeed, those that share The Times’ logins with their colleagues.)
The overall result: On the news side, The Times is a place that writers and editors want to leave, preferably for somewhere like the Telegraph or the FT.
8. The Independent: the plucky dark horse
Under recently appointed editor Amol Rajan, The Independent has been trialling a number of different methods to boost its digital footprint. Most recently, it launched the i100, a site that blends BuzzFeed’s and Reddit’s style, as the Indy looks to capture younger readers. Alongside traditional banner and NPU ads, like BuzzFeed, i100 also offers native advertising in the form of sponsored articles. While all Independent websites are free to access currently, Rajan is open to rolling out a metered paywall further down the line.
Interestingly, we hear that the Independent’s digital arm has a separate P&L from the print arm, meaning that the digital staff are not incentivized to worry about the fate of the newspaper. The company’s top brass discusses ending the newspaper about once a year, we heard.
In print too, the Independent has gone through some transformational changes. The Independent’s circulation decline has been terminal for some time (down 10.9% to 61,527 in October, according to ABC), but it launched the i (which has fewer pages and offers bite-sized news snippets for the cost of just 30p, compared with £1.40 for the Independent) in 2010. After a strong start, from a low base, that title is down year on year too (-4.12% to 284,369,) but its introduction means the Independent brand as a whole still fights a fairly good fight versus the other quality titles when both those circulations are added together.
Rajan told Press Gazette earlier this year The Independent has gone from losing £12.6 million in 2007 to now aiming to lose just £5 million in the 2013/14 fiscal year. That loss cutting has also been down to a run of redundancies, however, and much of its day-to-day content is created by freelancers rather than desk regulars. A shortage of staff compared with other titles has also led to The Independent often being criticised on social media for being hours, and sometimes even days, late to stories.
9. The Daily Express: losing the war on all fronts
Back in the day, The Express was once co-equal with The Mail. But mismanagement has left the Express’s online audience growing in single-digit figures year on year (up 4.53% to 788,924 in October, according to ABC) — leagues behind the reach of its closest competitor in terms of editorial mindset, the Mail Online. Print circulation-wise, The Daily Express is also shedding readers, with its average print sales down 10.18% year on year to 461,873 in October, according to ABC.
The mood inside the newspaper’s headquarters at the Northern & Shell Building continues to be bleak ever since staff were told in July print editorial roles would be cut from 650 to 450 as the Express newspaper group (which also owns The Daily Star) looks to hit a £14 million cost savings target. The announcement was enough for some journalists to condemn owner Richard Desmond as “Britain’s greediest billionaire,” Press Gazette reported at the time.
The Daily Express is tipped to turn its back on The Conservatives to support UKIP for the 2015 general election, after Desmond reportedly donated £300,000 to the party. The Daily Express is already pro-UKIP in much of its editorial coverage, a support underlined in October when Express Newspapers brought on board UKIP peer Lord Stevens as deputy chair.
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