With The Independent set to cease print operations in March, James Beeson, Editor, assesses the challenges facing print newspapers in the 21st Century
After a proud 30 year history, it was announced on 12 February 2016 that the liberal tabloid publication The Independent and its sister paper The Independent on Sunday would cease to operate as a print publications from the end of March 2016, becoming the first major UK national publication to move to a digital only format. Just a few weeks earlier, Guardian News & Media, the company behind The Guardian and The Observer announced their intention to cut operating costs by 20 per cent in a bid to break even within three years, putting ‘a significant number’ (thought to be around 100) of jobs at risk. It is a similar situation faced by countless other regional and local publications across the UK, who in recent years have seen a significant downturn in the size of their readership, as well as increases in running costs.
It is tempting to look at the facts above and declare the death of print media as somewhat of an inevitability. In an age where information is instantaneously accessible and news available from a huge range of sources at little or no cost to the average consumer, traditional print newspapers are increasingly struggling to adapt and survive. A 2015 report by The Guardian stated that in the last 12 months, national daily newspapers in the UK lost an average of half a million in daily sales, with the total number of national papers sold falling from an average of 7.6m a day to just over 7m between March 2014 and March 2015. Among the highest drops in sales were The Sun and The Daily Record both of which reported declines of more than 10 per cent, and The Guardian whose sales fell by 9.5 per cent. The Independent, which once had a circulation of more than 400,000 copies daily, now distributes fewer than 60,000 copies, and will soon cease to operate as a print publication entirely. Why are traditional print publications finding it so hard to compete in the digital era, and does The Independent’s move signal the beginning of the end for print media as we know it?
Senior figures at The Independent were quick to argue their move was a sign of innovation and responsiveness to what is a changing industry. Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of The Independent was upbeat about the future of the publication. “The newspaper industry is changing, and that change is being driven by readers,” he said, “they’re showing us that the future is digital. This decision preserves The Independent brand and allows us to continue to invest in the high-quality editorial content that is attracting more and more readers to our online platforms.” The Independent’s editor, Amol Rajan also pointed to the success of the publication’s digital branch as a reason to be optimistic. “We were the fastest-growing quality news site in the UK over the past three years,” said the 32-year old in a piece for The Spectator, “Revenues were up 50 per cent last year and traffic went up 33 per cent.” With nearly 70 million global unique users a month, independent.co.uk is clearly both a profitable and popular source of news.
There are concerns, however, that the move to an online only format of journalism will lead to content increasingly driven by the need to attract advertisement for the site, with click-bait and short digestible content preferred to longer, investigative and more serious forms of reporting. The pay-per-click advertising model many outlets choose to employ to make profits has lead to fears of a ‘dumbing down’ in content and tone, with articles such as ‘This is why you won’t survive the apocalypse’ and ‘Meet the boys who will make you cry, wipe your tears away – then charge you for it’ leading The Independent’s indy100.com – a news source aimed at millennials – at the time of writing. It’s a far cry from the kind of serious and informed journalism that gained the paper such respect within the industry in years gone by, and it remains to be seen whether the quality of journalism produced by the publication will suffer as a result of the move to an entirely digital format.
It’s not just national publications that are suffering in the 21st Century. Local and regional papers have always struggled to fund their operations, relying mostly on subscriptions from local residents and heavy use of advertising on their websites. According to figures released by ABC, all paid-for regional daily newspapers in the UK saw their circulations decline in the second half of 2014, with some falling by as much as 20 per cent. Many national publications such as The Times have been able to combat falls in revenue by introducing paywalls to access their online content, thus protecting against declining print sales. This strategy has been moderately successful for the Murdoch-owned publication, which now boasts 170,000 paid subscribers, and reported only a 0.9 per cent decrease in sales of their print edition between March 2014 and March 2015. Likewise, specialist publication The Economist recently reported their paid subscriptions were up 31 per cent to 303,000 in the last year, showing that perhaps the paywall could help provide a solution to publications hemorrhaging profits and losing circulation.
Unfortunately, paywalls are not an option for many local papers, whose potential audiences are often too small to monetise through digital advertising, and who face increasing pressure to cut running costs and produce content with ever shrinking editorial teams. In January 2016, the Newsquest-owned Herald and Times newspaper group, who produce publications such as The Herald, Evening Times and The National announced an additional 25 redundancies in what was their fourth wave of cuts in just over a year. The future certainly looks bleak for regional print media, with Newsquest, the third largest publisher of regional and local newspapers in the UK, revealing in December 2015 that they now only employ one editor for all of their titles in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. It seems like only a matter of time before many of these publications cease to produce content for good.
Looking at the facts as they are, it is not surprising that many observers declare traditional print media a doomed industry. Digital formats, however, tell an entirely different story. Whilst The Daily Mail saw print sales fall by 4.6 per cent in 2014-2015, their website MailOnline.co.uk saw a growth rate of 16 per cent in the year 2015 to the end of September, and now boasts almost 200 million unique monthly visitors, the most of any UK newspaper website. Likewise, digital-only news site Buzzfeed now has 200 million monthly visitors, about five billion video views, and a theoretical market value of about $1.5 billion. What’s interesting, however, is that recently Buzzfeed have taken a more active role in investigating and reporting on serious news stories, as opposed to the more light-hearted, viral content for which it is best known. The site’s new investigative unit, formed in 2014, has carved out a niche for itself, spearheading stories such as an investigation with the BBC into match-fixing in the upper reaches of tennis and a series on the abuse of foreign guest workers, which went on to win a prestigious Ellie award. This more serious approach to digital news is evidence that the shift away from traditional print mediums does not necessarily mean cat videos and funny gifs at the expense of hard-hitting and challenging journalism. Speaking to Exeposé in August 2015, Jim Waterson, Deputy Editor of Buzzfeed UK, said he believed “the battle is already lost” for print journalism. “Newspapers… people just don’t read them in the same way anymore.”
However, there are still reasons to believe that print media can survive and indeed thrive in the digital era. On the same day The Independent announced the closure of their print operations, their other sister paper The i, was sold for around £24million to regional publisher Johnston Press. The i was launched 2010 as a cheap alternative newspaper and currently sells around 275,000 copies daily. The paper made underlying earnings of £5.2million in 2015 to the end of September and will continue to operate as a print outlet for content produced by The Independent, with around 50 staff moving to Johnson Press under the terms of the sale. The regional publisher clearly believes there is still a a profit to be had in the production of the high-quality, impartial print journalism The i prides itself upon, and they aren’t alone. On 22 February, Trinity Mirror Plc, the company behind publications such as The Daily Mirror and The Manchester Evening News, announced the launch of the first new standalone national daily newspaper for 30 years, entitled The New Day. The title will be available from 29 February across the UK, and will focus on “time poor” consumers whilst “trying to create a mood of optimism and positivity that is lacking elsewhere,” according to it’s editor Alison Phillips. In a move that undoubtedly hopes to mirror the success of The i, the paper will be politically neutral and cost 50p to purchase. If print journalism is to survive in any format into the future, more publications will surely aim to follow this cut-price, bite-sized approach to news reporting.
There is no doubt that in the 21st Century the world of print media is more unstable than ever, and many will mourn the loss of The Independent as a print publication. There does, however, appear to be some evidence to suggest that the medium is not quite as doomed as some commentators have predicted. Despite declining sales, newspapers still continue to dominate the political agenda and influence the reporting of broadcast and digital news outlets, and hence their influence remains keenly felt throughout the industry. Digital journalism may well be the future, but for now, at least, print remains firmly a part of the present.