Ah, the Theatre of the B2B marketplace! After two days at the Briefing Media Digital Media Strategies event, I feel I have seen every Shakespearian death rattle in the book. From noble senators quaffing the offered hemlock with disdain to the King falling publicly on his sword. Above all, the sense that honeyed words and sweet poison poured in the ear in the form of complacency in the face of extinction is a stoic exit in the context of inexorable change. O for some raging in the dying of the light!
Or perhaps I am being a bit too theatrical. There were positive elements and signs of a new industry appearing. But not in the ruins of the old, where playing the new game as if the old rules still mattered is disastrous. Take Piers North (Strategy Director, Trinity Mirror) and Stefan Bitzold (MD Digital, BILD). They told a panel on adblockers that it is all about Hard Power and Soft Power. The user must be told to behave. If not, the privilege of getting free or even paid for information will be withdrawn. This may make the audience in the room feel happy, but it avoids simple and inconvenient truth: the user is in control and not the supplier and this has been the case since 1993. And the news is now fully commoditised. If news vendors do not accept that, then Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles should convince them.
Monty Python had a dead parrot. We had the “Boy Stood on the Burning Deck”. Simon Fox, CEO of Trinity Mirror is such an evidently nice guy that one has to wonder what crimes in a previous life sentenced him to this. His counter strategy is to go back into print with his New Day product. Only eight ad slots and no classified. Written by men and women for women and men (this, apparently is a first!). They sold 150k at launch last week and have now increased the price to 25p en route to 50p. No need for a digital strategy here, because there is no digital. Hello, wake up and smell the coffee, it really is 1945 all over again! But Trinity Mirror have their presses to optimize, their editorial headcount is down to 25, quality maintenance must be a nightmare, and it’s getting harder to maintain margins by cutting overheads. Consolidating LocalWorld (the regional papers of DMGT’s Northcliffe) into Trinity Mirror’s locals can again lead to consolidation to maintain margin, but has nobody noticed that while the newspaper market has leaked advertising and circulation for 20 years now, decline gets steeper towards the end? It may be too late now to rediscover what all those people on the commuter trains are doing on their smartphones in the morning.
Much less sad was David Pemsel, MD of the Guardian Group. Getting a global footprint for a liberal minded commentary on the news has plainly worked. He will use Google and Facebook as a channel to market for branded content. The problem here is a business strategy for holding the losses and satisfying the mandate of the Scott Trust to keep the not for profit going. Will membership do it? It’s a hedge against the decline of advertising was the answer. Not too hopeful but at least there are options. Will print end soon? Possibly – a print free Guardian could be envisaged but not nearly yet. The game was more niche markets, more editions, more specialised writing directly at targeted audiences. The Guardian staff is over 900. It has major experiments in citizen journalism. It appears, as a nineteenth century creation, to be busily about its task of finding a new role for the 2050s. There will not be many survivors in the pasteurised news market – only the strongest brands with a reputation for accuracy and a twist on their commentary position can hope to do so.
Hope came from even more unlikely places. LADbible has a good value exchange position. I was disappointed that sex, celebrity and body shape came as low as fourth is its audience priority but with a reach of 150 m in the 13-24 age range, and with 30% of its readers female it seemed to have created a real niche in a wholly digital world. It’s CEO, Mimi Turner came through Northern and Shell to this role, clearly a valuable apprenticeship in a market where communications must say it all in under 12 seconds, and the vital frontline is 6 seconds of attention span. so the notification to the Lockscreen does become the vital attention grabber. But no print heritage here to worry about, and a declining amount at Immediate Media. Francois-Regis Coumau, Group Managing Director, is ex-eBay, so obviously sees no problem about buying a TV merchandising channel for selling jewellery and creating a web presence around it. All media plays, using the best way or combination of ways to reach specialised audiences, suits the old BBC Magazines and Magicalia group, another rare example of post-print life after death.
But, alas, life in the morgue went on relentlessly. Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential (sorry, it will always be EMAP to me however many times they change its name) told us he was only 4% ad dependent. And now, just before the recent float, he had turned off all print, since it was now an “unviable platform”. 80% of subscribers at that point were digital. But the larger issue looming over the conversation concerned the decision to abandon all print, even that which still makes money. Did that sweeten the float by suggesting that all legacy problems had been resolved? And why would you float 43% (post debt some 25%) if you could sell it? Or is this one of those instances where failure to sell at a premium to a third party resolves into using the public markets and the private investor as a fall back position?
And the last interment, given the high hopes when Ashley Highfield went to Johnston Press, was sad for some listeners like me. Jack Moriarty, Chief Digital Officer, made a game showing, but failed to explain to me at least why this group bought the Independent’s I newspaper for £24m. And the idea that they cannot use Independent or Evening Standard derived material digitally adds to the queries. The idea that users will accept copy branded Scotsman or Yorkshire Post in its place seems very odd, even if these brands had any resonance to a smartphone user of a service like this. A glance had their new service developments like wow24/7 also fails to reassure. It makes LADbible look sparkling! Where is the Alfred Lord Northcliffe of our times who will rethink the connection between content, aspiration and media? Unfortunately his name is Zuckerberg and he does not work on the Northern Echo.
This was a combative and vital meeting of DMS. In my country village childhood funerals were always red letter days. But we know that when print declines, it goes slowly for years then plunges rapidly towards the end. I expect soon to attend all digital meetings here in a sector which is consolidating rapidly around a workflow and data analytics driven view of the world. News is vital there, but only when it changes something, and the user reading it may be less important than the machine knowing it.keep looking »