When The Independent announced last week it was closing its print editions (and selling off sister title, the i newspaper) to focus entirely on digital, one would imagine there was a lot of soul-searching going on amongst its Fleet Street competitors.
Not so at Trinity Mirror — owner of The Daily Mirror and People national newspapers plus more than 100 regional titles in the UK and Ireland — according to its strategy director Piers North.
“We don’t and can’t comment on other businesses,” North told Business Insider. “It changes nothing for us regarding digital. Our focus remains on growing those digital revenues — through audience, yield, and other streams where possible — and understanding that balance of scale, as well as data, to deliver on revenue.”
North walked us through some of the steps Trinity is taking to get there, including taking on experiments that are allowed to fail, signing deals with tech platforms rather than attempting to build them itself, and he also hinted the company is set to announce its antidote to ad blockers.
Trinity is “moving out of toddler phase now” in digital
Like most other newspaper publishers in the region, trading continues to be volatile. Trinity said revenue for the fourth quarter is likely to drop 9% — an identical decline to the 9% decline it reported in the third quarter.
While offsetting print declines will take some time, Trinity is growing its digital audiences. Average monthly unique users and page views grew year-on-year by 18% and 26% respectively over October and November, the company said in its latest trading update.
North said the company’s recent £220 million acquisition of regional newspaper group Local World means Trinity’s total audience is now up to around 30 million unique users a month.
With that scale, he sees Trinity “moving out of toddler phase now” and maturing as a digital business.
North said: “30 million, that’s a significant volume. We have to again think about the stuff that to some extent we weren’t able to think about before, specifically about the digital yield: How do we drive up the price point that we get for our inventory? How do we accelerate the packaging of print and digital?”
One way it is going about increasing yield is through a partnership announced last week with content recommendation platform Taboola. The deal will see Taboola native ads appear in articles across Trinity Mirror’s desktop and mobile sites.
North said the deal will help Trinity innovate when it comes to native ads and the mobile monetisation challenge, but also potentially on other areas, such as personalisation: “A lot of this will be trial and error. Our mantra is always to trial things, however big or small, either at a content level or an ad tech level.”
Trinity has famously experimented with a number of different projects in recent years. It launched a standalone social news website called UsVsTh3m and a data journalism brand Ampp3d in 2013, which were both closed in 2015. There was also the People.co.uk website which was scrapped after just two months in January 2014.
Earlier this month, Trinity launched its latest experiment. Perspecs is a standalone news aggregator app that aims to tell “three sides to every story.” Each day, 10 stories — including those from other publishers — are manually curated by its editors. Each separate story will have three articles, which will each have different viewpoints.
The app continues Trinity’s bug for experimentation. North said the barrier to entry was low, so the company is taking a “let’s see what happens” approach.
“It’s not about making a big bet, it’s about trialing stuff and seeing how they go,” North said. “If it makes it as a standalone business, fantastic. The proof will be in how consumers adopt it. When you look at the news aggregation sector, there’s a really nice USP [to Perspecs.] It’s not just about news aggregation, there’s some thought around it. So for as as an organisation, that [positions] The Daily Mirror as ‘the intelligent tabloid,’ it reinforces us having a slightly different take.”
Experiments are all well and good when you’re a tech company like Google and Facebook that has thousands of employees dedicated to engineering and “moon shots” — but isn’t that a risk for a publisher, we asked North.
He responded: “Clearly we always have to cut our cloth accordingly. We need to look at what the really big businesses that are succeeding in digital do and try as best as we can to understand the elements we can do and adopt at a lower scale … at the end of the day, especially in the product development world, people love to come up with new ideas as part of their DNA — it attracts the right talent, this is why Google does the 20% time [which allows employees to spend one day a week working on side projects.]”
However, at Trinity, it’s a bit more like 100% and 10% time — on top of the duties they already have to do, Piers said.
One of the areas Trinity’s product development team is no-doubt looking at is ad blocking. Some 198 million people use ad blockers each month, according to a report from PageFair and Adobe.
It’s an issue that affects Trinity, although North won’t reveal the percentage of its audience is made up of ad blocker users.
He does hint that Trinity has a plan up its sleeve — without revealing what that is. It looks as though it might follow the lead of publishers like Forbes and City AM, which have set up ad blocker walls, which block ad blocker users from reading their content until they switch their ad blockers off.
“What I’m noticing this year, and I think it’s the right thing, publishers are becoming more confident about it,” North said. “When ad blocking really cropped up a year ago I did sense that we beat ourselves up as a sector, we said it’s all our fault, and I think what we’re noticing now is … it’s come to a point where publishers do what Forbes have done and City AM have done and say enough is enough.”
While there will always be choice on the internet, when it comes to news, publishers must work to show fewer, better ads, North said: “If you’re coming to our house to consume our content the value exchange that we expect is that we have the opportunity to serve ads to you. I definitely feel like there’s a hardening of the publisher ecosystem, which I welcome.”
In that comes the risk that once an ad blocker user is blocked, they will never return. But North asks, what’s the alternative?
“Do you pay for hosting costs, memory costs for traffic that’s worthless? Of course there’s risk in everything you do in this space … I think there will be people out there who use ad blockers for sites that they visit occasionally or that they’re not proud of visiting. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for someone like Forbes to say [‘turn your ad blocker off’] and those people will go ‘oh yes, I didn’t realise I was blocking your site’ and understand the value exchange,” North said.
Another option, of course, is erecting a paywall and only letting paying users through. North won’t comment specifically on any sort of Trinity paywall discussion, but did add that the track record to date for the industry — bar a handful of sites like The Economist and The Financial Times — “is not particularly bright.”
“That’s not to say in the future that won’t change,” North said. “We’re just keeping our options open.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.