Media relations

Whither the print edition

There is finally an answer to the question that has plagued the newspaper world for the last decade. The first newspaper to close its print edition and become digital-only is not The Guardian, as had been widely rumoured, but The Independent and its sister title The Independent on Sunday.

The last print edition of The Independent will come off the presses on 26 March, after the current owners, ES&I – who also own the Evening Standard – finally concede that with just 55,000 paid-for sales a day, the economics of printing a full paper are no longer sustainable. Mourning for the death of the newspaper industry was in full swing when Daily Mirror-publisher Trinity Mirror spoilt the wake with its own announcement that it would launch The New Day, a 40-page paid for tabloid newspaper aimed chiefly at women.

To complete the counter-cyclical move, Trinity Mirror said that The New Day would have no website or online presence, but would merely tweet as a form of marketing. While millennials took to Twitter to bemoan the Generation Xers running the newspaper publishing world for being dinosaurs wedded to a past with a fast-approaching expiry date, a more kindly interpretation was that this was the newspaper industry’s ‘last hurrah’.

This launch, and the sale of The i by ES&I to local newspaper publisher Johnston Press for £24 million, suggest that reports of the death of print media have been somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, in its first week, The New Day is said to have sold about 150,000 copies a day at a cut-price rate of 25p.

Elizabeth Rigby, media editor of The Times, says: ‘Across the industry, newspaper circulations are falling and advertising revenues are declining. But on the flip side, digital revenues are not offsetting those declines, which leaves newspaper proprietors little choice but to ride both horses.’

Having turned the Evening Standard into a very profitable free newspaper and launched The i, a pared-down version of the Indie, as well as launching a local London TV channel, ES&I can justifiably claim to be pioneers in today’s media environment. But Rigby argues that in this case, any trailblazing arises from desperation. ‘The Independent’s owners spun the closure of the print edition as a pioneering step, but in reality, the national was loss-making with a circulation dwindling to just 55,000.’

Of course the industry is in decline and newspapers will try different things, but they will not entirely disappear

In contrast, Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press are signalling with real money what Daily Mail & General Trust, News UK and Nikkei, Japan’s largest media group which recently bought the Financial Times for £844 million, firmly believe: that the printed product still has some legs. But experts counsel against getting too carried away with hopes of a revived print industry.

Rigby says: ‘Be in no doubt, proprietors are managing decline. Their circulations are dropping and their readers aging and I do think that, in the next decade, others – perhaps the FT and Guardian – might shift to online only models.’

Douglas McCabe, chief executive of Enders Analysis has crunched the numbers on The New Day, which is being launched into a market place where newspaper sales fell by seven per cent on average in 2015 and where advertising income dropped by nine per cent or £121 million in the same period.

The biggest challenge the new paper faces, he believes, is persuading readers to go back to buying print media. Not only must the paper differentiate itself from Metro, the UK-wide paper distributed at stations and on buses, it must also be compelling enough to send buyers into a newsagent or other retailer.

McCabe scoffs at the idea of the death of print. ‘I don’t think it will comprehensively happen. Of course the industry is in decline and newspapers will try different things, but they will not entirely disappear,’ he says.

So who is calling the industry right here? Is it ES&I by going solely digital or is it Trinity Mirror, with a print product that does not even have a website?

McCabe says: ‘What the vast majority of publishers do is compromise their product by having a newspaper and a website. At least here, neither decision is sitting on the fence. In the case of The New Day, they refuse to make a half-hearted app or website. It’s brave.’

He also foresees challenges for The Independent in reminding people that they are there, without a presence in newsagents, lobbies and other retail outlets. Enders foresees that other publishers will wait and see how each side fares, before deciding which side of the fence they will come down on.

But McCabe is not yet giving up on newspapers: ‘I genuinely think that news businesses are having more influence than ever before. Their revenue is going down but their reach is going up. Some of the English-language papers in London have an international reach that was unthinkable before. The scale of that influence is very powerful and has huge potential.’

Christian Sharp, senior account director at Firefly Communications, says that for PRs seeking coverage for clients, it’s not about whether the publication is print or digital but whether it’s the right medium to reach people effectively. ‘When I started out in PR, it was all about column inches. Now there’s a lot of emphasis on company’s own websites and social media channels, including bloggers and vloggers. That’s because these channels are quite  effective at reaching an audience,’ he says.

One of the problems that newspapers have had is that people now find many of their articles through external links, whether social media or web searches, and rarely read a newspaper from cover to cover.

Some of the English-language papers in London have an international reach that was unthinkable before. The scale of that influence is very powerful and has huge potential

This means that newspapers have very little quality information about who is reading them, so the value of coverage is hard to assess. Actually, Sharp says, B2B websites are much better at getting job titles at registration and can provide lots of information about their audience. PRs use technologies such as Google Analytics to measure tangible results of coverage such as signups and sales leads.

However, on a print-only title, like The New Day, this would be almost impossible to analyse. Sharp worries that people are overloaded with information and thinks there will be a day when people will get their bespoke ‘news’ package solely from a phone or tablet. ‘It’s just so much more convenient. Why would they pay for something when the content is not relevant or interesting to them?’

But at the end of the day, even this sceptic still sees a need for the media relations function. ‘Someone still needs to write the news so there’s still a role for media relations. There is still cachet about coverage by newspapers,’ he says.

John Sunnucks, executive chairman of Bell Pottinger, agrees: ‘My clients worry as much as they ever did about how their business is reported on, whether it is online or in the print edition of a newspaper. It is a rare business leader who doesn’t take time, care and trouble in dealing with them.

‘Print is certainly not dead, but the impact of breaking a news story in print, is clearly not what it was. Broadcasting has also upped its game in terms of perceived value and importance.’ Of course, public relations is much broader than mere media relations.

But the relationship between communications professionals and journalists is still key. Alison Flynn, group head of communications at oilfield services company Petrofac, says that her bosses still care enough about newspapers to want to influence what is written in them.

Print is certainly not dead, but the impact of breaking a news story in print, is clearly not what it was. Broadcasting has also upped its game in terms of perceived value and importance

However, the demise of the sector correspondent, in favour of generalist digital-only writers, has made it harder to get coverage. It can be tricky to interest online writers, who have no specialism or background knowledge of a company. ‘There are some good energy writers out there and newspapers are still influential. However, we target Lex, Lombard and the [City] commentators more and more. There is increased emphasis on influential comment rather than just getting regular editorial coverage,’ Flynn says.

While trade press and B2B publications remain very important, especially in certain industries, the digital revolution has seen the emergence of niche sites and blogs publishing ‘news’, whose reach is suddenly huge. ‘If you’re not careful, something that is on a small website can, in the world of 24 hour news, grow legs in minutes,’ Flynn says, who worries that the standards of some sites are not up to those of newspapers and broadcasters – with regard to libel law and checking facts – which means they can set hares running.

She adds: ‘Media relations has to adapt and evolve. Before you had distinct audiences but the digital revolution has meant that the average NGO doesn’t have to come to you to get information, they can now be influenced by many other sources. That means you have to treat your messaging holistically. You can’t do media relations in a vacuum from other communications.’

You still need to know what makes a decent story and who to pitch it to and when a damaging story is escalating to the point that you need to take wider action

Flynn’s conclusion is that media relations people have to work much harder to get the same level of relationships and understanding of their business that was achievable a decade ago. As for those younger writers who increasingly fill the desks in newsrooms, Flynn says: ‘That Mail Online writer has 20 minutes to write a story. They’re not going to come in and have a coffee. The thought of a relationship [with them] isn’t anywhere on your horizon, and it’s not on theirs either.’

Donal McCabe, director of external relations at Ladbrokes, says there will come a point when ‘old fogies like me will be no longer relevant’. He is not joking. ‘I do think that I’ll be out of touch. In the generation that are coming up, the decision makers are much more digital natives than I would ever be. My contacts won’t be in the right places,’ he explains.

McCabe points out that the media relations skill set will not change, but the contact book changes. ‘Even in my consumer PR team now, there are people who spend much more time talking to online newspaper editors than print ones. Where I’d ask if there is a picture that goes with a story, they are thinking about video. It’s a different mind-set, with different contacts,’ he says.

For now, the core skills that carried him from through Railtrack, Alliance Boots, London Underground and Land Securities are still relevant. ‘You still need to know what makes a decent story and who to pitch it to and when a damaging story is escalating to the point that you need to take wider action. Digital news is still not mainstream. It’s only when a Twitter storm hits the national papers or TV news, that it becomes a problem,’ McCabe says.

Also, despite the time pressure that the digital world brings – ‘We have all ended up doing about three peoples’ jobs’ – good PRs and hacks will still make time to foster relations. The wagons are circling in the newspaper world – as indeed they have been for at least decade – but no-one has yet managed to solve the essential question of how to get people to pay for content, in a world where advertising is being split across so many new forms of media.

For the present, most publications will attempt to ride two horses – digital and print – at once. Media relations will have to carry on reflecting that split. What is around the corner is an evolution, rather than a revolution.

This article first appeared in issue 104