Taking the news out of the papers – can the UK’s media empires survive?

Analysis by Tim Dawson.

Might British newspaper be beacons of innovation and experiment in a news market convulsed with technologically-led change?  Or are they venerable, but doomed dinosaurs whose death agonies are causing them to perform extraordinary convulsions it a final, futile attempt to adapt to a new environment?

One could happily reach either conclusion considered the dramatically diverging paths that newspaper groups are taking in response to declining sales and a tough advertising market.  Last week, The Guardian announced that it was moving towards a ‘digital first’ strategy and a day later confirmed that its record losses (£134 million over the last four years) were on-going.

Quite what ‘digital first’ will actually mean was slightly opaque, suffice to say that the printed newspaper will recede in importance, and pagination will be reduced.  Breaking news will increasingly appear online, and the paper, for so long as it continues to be printed, with lead with comment.  Inevitably, there will be job losses.  For the plan to succeed, The Guardian needs to double its revenue from digital operations from the current figure of around £47 million per annum.

Across London at News International’s Thomas More Square offices, hopes are pinned on the paywall behind which online editions of The Times, The Sunday Times and The News Of The World now reside.  In March the company announced that it has sold 222,000 digital ‘products’, among them 79,000 online subscriptions to the papers.  Separately, the iPad editions of the broadsheet papers are understood to have 25,000 and 22,000 readers.

To commentators schooled in the expectations of page impressions my the million, News International’s sales figures appear derisory.  Some routinely dismiss the paywall as an abject failure.  The company, meanwhile, insists that sales are ‘on target’ and that, unlike the millions of impression received by some papers sites, they are at least collecting a decent sum of real money.

NI and The Guardian’s executives are regularly set up in pugilistic opposition, scrapping over the relative merits of free-to-view and paywalls, but there are no less interesting developments elsewhere.  The Independent now offers a full-content newspaper alongside a 20p ‘lite’ version.  And London’s Evening Standard, which is now given away, is thought to be close to profit.

Naysayers might easily detect death-throes in all of these moves, but my bet is that that, while some of the corporate contortions through which newspaper publishers are twisting themselves are painful, they are unlikely to be terminal.  Whether at the end of them these companies will remotely resemble their current incarnations is another matter entirely. 

Looking at other sectors, there are plenty of examples of organisations whose forced evolutions have left their previous forms hard to recall.  Western Union, for example, grew to become a telecommunications giant by sending telegrams.  It endures as a money transfer company, and has not processed a telegram in five years.

On current trajectories, it is quite possible to imagine The Guardian upping sticks to become the United States liberal conscience (it has form, when it comes to relocating, don’t forget), or to foresee a time when NI’s newspapers become news brands available only to Sky Televisions 10 million subscribers.  To some, either of those end points is the equivalent of death, to others a potent sign of renewal.