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Telegraph Group joins Gadarene rush with folding of Sunday title into 7-day operation

March 13, 2013

Telegraph 7-day operationThe newspaper is dead, and the Telegraph’s decision to merge its daily and Sunday titles into a 7-day-a-week operation is yet another nail in its coffin. Long live the free press.

By “free press” I mean not the plutocratic oligarchy (absent the Guardian and Observer owning Scott Trust) that maintains a diminishing stranglehold over printed national news, but that other sense of free – “free of charge”. The internet, with Google algorithms in the vanguard, is slowly, inexorably, doing what no politician could ever do: it is breaking down the cartel.

No qualitative judgement is made or implied about this being a Good Thing for the advancement of civilised values. Indeed, on balance, it may well be a bad thing. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as free journalism. If we are all able, in a matter of moments, to find out what is going on by tapping a few words into a search box at virtually no cost who, exactly, is going to pay for the many hours of sweat, journalistic nous and training that went into crafting the news item in the first place?

It’s a conundrum that digital content strategists frequently explain away by reference to the woolly wisdom of “creative destruction”. Darwinian metaphor is highly misleading, however. Paper dinosaurs may well be on their way to destruction. But there is nothing inevitable about the evolution of a genus of fleet-footed digital mammals to take their place. The ways of evolution are multiform, mysterious and rarely linear. While it is entirely understandable that legacy media institutions should present themselves as the natural guarantors of smooth transition, the reality (with the possible exception of such venerable specialist titles as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal) may be very different. More likely there will be a period of chaotic evolutionary stasis before something commercially semi-vertebrate emerges anew from the economic goo.

I mention all this after briefly reviewing the latest set of national newspaper circulation figures (ABCs). My, how the mighty have tumbled. The Guardian, for example, shed 5.31% in just one month (February) Admittedly this followed a price hike, but the circulation figure is now around 193,586 which – as MediaWeek reminds us – is The Guardian’s lowest headline figure since records began, in 1949. The paper is worried about having breached a psychological barrier, even after sales were pumped by a recent BBH ad campaign. Not so long ago, I seem to remember that psychological barrier was 400,000, not 200,000.

Guardian print circulation may be in freefall, but its trend is by no means atypical. The Sun on Sunday is down nearly 5% month on month, representing a 41% collapse since Rupert Murdoch phoenixed it last year out of the ashes of The News of The World. The Sunday Express has descended below 500,000; The Mirror is barely achieving 1 million; The Sun itself, not so long ago hovering around the 3 million mark, is now gliding towards 2 million. Only the i – a scarcely economic 20p news digest – managed an increase, and that a miserly 1.45% to just shy of 300,000. Those with a head for historical statistics might like to note that its host, The Independent, now boasts a circulation of no more than 75,000. Even The Sunday Times – psychological barrier once 1 million – is now drifting down to 875,000.

In light of this dismal picture, it is no surprise to find The Sunday Telegraph (February ABC: 429,346) huddling closer to The Daily Telegraph (541,036) for warmth. As with the Sun, Mirror and The Independent 7-day operations that have preceded it, the rhetoric of the Telegraph’s transformation is radical and upbeat. The grim reality – and ultimate rationale for the move – is jobs lost. And with them, irreplaceable experience.

Murdoch MacLennanTrue, the headline figure of 80 print jobs out of 550 editorial staff being culled is not the whole picture. It emerges that Telegraph Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan (left) will offset some of these losses with 50 “new digitally-focused jobs” – including a new position, director of content who will sit over both editors – and inject £8m into his “number one” priority of completing “our transition into a digital business.”

No matter how many time he incants the mantra “digital business”, MacLennan is unlikely – any more than his rivals who have trodden the same primrose path – to extricate his titles from the financial doldrums. The damage to the brand – particularly the Sunday brand – with its more considered, investigative magazine-like approach – is likely to be considerable. The strategic upside, after an initial financial up-tick, on the other hand is doubtful. Expect to see more circulation decline once disappointed Sunday readers reject the graft.

On the face of it, digital global readers, in whose name all this 7-day stuff is being done, look a worthy prize. For a start, there are lots of them. In January, for example, The Telegraph’s website traffic (by no means the most voluminous among newspaper brands) grew 11% over the previous month to 3,129,599 – the sort of circulation figure that no UK newspaper has been able to boast of for a very long time. But it’s fool’s gold. Digital readers are fickle and rather more likely to be driven by search than brand loyalty. Advertisers have recognised this by tightening their wallets. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt long ago observed, there’s no better way of turning advertising dollars into cents than migrating to digital publishing. Nor, for the aforementioned reason of declining brand loyalty, are paywalls a viable financial alternative. Unlike the customers of banks, digital readers do have a choice. And they’re using it.

On the other hand, senior newspaper management cannot be seen to be doing nothing. They must inject energy and excitement into a task which, increasingly, looks as suicidal as the rush of the Gadarene swine.

How long before The Observer and Guardian – estimated to be losing about £50m a year – follow the same headlong path?

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Seven-day-a-week newspaper publishing revolution shatters The Mirror

May 30, 2012

The Rabelesian guffawing in The Mirror’s newsroom when Trinity Mirror’s chief executive announced her unlamented departure is now reduced to a sullen whisper.

Who will be next, the hacks timorously wonder as they survey the seismic damage caused by this morning’s fresh round of top-level sackings? Out, in short order, have gone Richard Wallace, editor of The Daily Mirror, and Tina Weaver, veteran editor of The Sunday Mirror. In has come Lloyd Embley (who? – formerly editor of the People) as the new editorial supremo of a “merged” 7-day-a-week Mirror newspaper.

In a classic example of tabloid double-think, Embley told his shell-shocked team: “This is not a slash and burn exercise. Nor is it about managing decline.”

Isn’t it, Lloyd? Difficult to see what else it might be. Certainly not a strategic decision, made from strength. Nor, to use some ghastly marketing jargon, is it “proactive”. Indeed, as so often in the world of newspapers, Rupert Murdoch continues to take the credit, having got there first with the 7-day Sun – while Trinity hobbles behind, a lame second. If the two editors were stunned by the manner of their summary dismissal this morning, they can hardly be surprised by its ultimate cause. All the circulation gains accruing to The Sunday Mirror after Murdoch unexpectedly closed the News of the World were wiped out almost overnight by his introduction of The Sun on Sunday.

If this brutal step-change really is, in the words of the Trinity statement, “a further step towards creating one of the most technologically advanced and operationally efficient newsrooms in Europe,” why on earth didn’t senior management have the courage of their convictions and implement it before?

Because, let’s face it, it isn’t really a step-change at all. And because, where newsrooms and newspapers are concerned, there are more important things than being “technologically advanced” and “operationally efficient”. Like keeping your journalists on side. Which is difficult when you are savagely cutting their numbers to achieve shareholder “value”.

What seems to have occurred here is some highly expedient corporate chicanery. How can it be that Sly Bailey, the lame duck outgoing chief executive, has been allowed to make these changes, changes she would never have dared to make before she resigned? Simple. The new board, and particularly the new chairman David Grigson, needs someone to hide behind, someone who is now totally expendable.

This may not have been Grigson’s only calculus, however. The suspicion is Trinity used this occasion to cleanse its Augean Stables. We’re still waiting to hear the full unexpurgated version of former Mirror editor Piers Morgan’s flirtatious relationship with the truth about phone-hacking, but last week moved a little closer to full disclosure with Jeremy Paxman’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry. Wallace and Weaver were both later contemporaries of Morgan, who stepped down from the Mirror in 2004. Like two Wise Monkeys, they have joined Morgan in a deaf-and-dumb denial of complicity in phone-hacking culture. Which – who knows? – may be entirely justified. But just in case, why not get rid of them at this opportune moment? They are, in any case, very expensive; and they were, no doubt, utterly opposed to the concept of sacrificing one of their editorships on the altar of a 7-day newspaper.

And yet the real casualty here is the brand. Sunday newspapers, and not just red-top Sundays, are looking like an endangered species. Who will be next to join the 7-day bandwagon? The Independent/Independent on Sunday? The Guardian/Observer?

Sunday newspapers are being eroded not simply by shrink-fit publishing economics but by changing reading habits. After all, who these days seeks the wow-factor of a good old-fashioned scoop over their Sunday bacon and eggs?


McCall’s ambition takes flight

March 26, 2010

Commentary on Carolyn McCall’s decision to quit the top job at Guardian Media Group in favour of the top job at Easyjet has tended to focus on two astonishing observations. The first is that she is a woman; the second, that she doesn’t know anything about aviation. Both spot on, of course. But it’s the sly implication behind them that’s the real blinder. If she’s a woman, poor dear, she’ll be utterly outclassed in the macho world of boys toys. Whatever was she thinking of leaving the comfortable, cocooned world of GMG?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never noticed Guy Zitter, Murdoch MacLennan or Les Hinton wearing a skirt. The management of newspaper publishing, in which McCall has spent most of her career, was until very recently a dauntingly masculine environment. The first to break the glass ceiling was Sly Bailey, when she took over at Trinity Mirror in 2003 – and she herself was a product of the more genteel, feminised world of magazines. Only now is change in the air, with Rebekah Brooks (formerly Wade) taking the helm at News International.

The credit for leading the way, however, should really go to Caroline Marland, once chief executive of Guardian Newspapers, and her young protegée McCall, who succeeded her in 2004. Like any disciple of talent, McCall has exceeded the achievement of her mentor – by being the first woman to head the organisation as a whole.

There’s a second, and somewhat overlooked, dimension to McCall scaling the heights of GMG. More important than being a woman, she’s an insider; whereas traditionally the job of group ceo has gone to a seasoned outsider, well versed in the ways of the City but coasting through the autumn of their career. The late Sir Bob Phillis springs to mind. For someone like McCall, in her forties and highly ambitious, this was never going to be her last job of consequence.

All the same, it was a formative experience that created a window onto the world of plcs. On the one hand, GMG is unique in being governed by a trust, whose primary purpose is not to appease shareholders but to guarantee the editorial independence of The Guardian and associated GMG newspapers. On the other, it shares exactly the same structural problem facing the rest of the print-based media, most of whom are public limited companies: how to survive the internet. It so happened that during McCall’s tenure, this crisis has come to a head, giving her the opportunity to shape the organisation for years to come.

She’s divested and she’s acquired; she has given whole-hearted commitment to an open online strategy – as opposed to the paywall route now being explored by Rupert Murdoch et al. With what results, we cannot yet be certain. The divestment of half the Auto Trader group to private equity company Apax looked a smart move; the subsequent decision to join Apax in carving up the Emap empire less so (if only because the world financial crisis intervened, making the acquisition look very over-priced). Probably, she should have closed the heavily loss-making Observer when she had the opportunity to do so – although the decision to make cuts elsewhere is entirely understandable within the context of the Trust. The success of the online strategy pioneered by McCall and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger will be a matter of opinion for some time to come. The important point, though, is that the die has been cast.

But why, of all places, seek a new challenge in the world of aviation? In fact, the similarities between a newspaper publishing group and an airline are greater than they might seem at first sight. Both are high-fixed-cost businesses whose profitability is highly sensitive to the economic cycle. Both industries have been forced into great change in recent years, which has involved shedding costs and people. Both exist within a regulatory straitjacket that makes industry consolidation an unlikely solution to economic difficulty. Both, so far as leadership is concerned, have an entrepreneurial ‘seat of the pants’ feel to them.

I could go on…the point being that relevant, rather than previous, experience is the key requirement for the Easyjet job. Final proof being that McCall’s predecessor, Andrew Harrison, came not from the airline industry but from the RAC. He has gone on to Whitbread.

One other quality that might come in handy from McCall’s Guardian days is her skill as a boardroom tactician. The airline industry is not known for its diplomatic finesse – witness the clumsy confrontation at BA and the management style of Ryanair. But it will certainly be at a premium in the boardroom of Easyjet, where the airline’s founder and major shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, has been in a smouldering feud with the management team over the airline’s strategy.

Good luck to her.


Last post for the London freesheet

August 21, 2009

thelondonpaperSomething old, something new. While loss-laden Guardian Media Group dithers over a rare opportunity to mercy-kill the venerable but decrepit Observer, News International has shown no such compunction with its own failures, in axing thelondonpaper freesheet. Sixty rather shocked staff look like being out in the cold by mid-September.

In its way, thelondonpaper had become as much of an institution as the Observer, although a rather less sympathetic one. We’ll miss, with a sigh of relief in most cases, the army of free distributors who stiffened the ranks of seasoned chuggers obstructing our route to Oxford Street bus and tube stops. London Underground won’t, however, be regretting the 10 million tonnes of paper waste it had to dispose of daily. I imagine Westminster and Camden Councils will be similarly relieved at the reduced charge on their services.

I speak of this as the end of an era (albeit only three years’ long) because surely it is. Associated Newspapers cannot take long in reaching the same conclusion about thelondonpaper’s principal rival, London Lite: that it is a waste of time and money. Which would leave the much-better established Metro as sole contender in the London freesheet market. At least it has the merit of being able to make a profit in the good years.

Freesheets looked the way of the future when they first came out; in fact they were a last-gasp reaction by beleaguered newspaper barons. Paid-for no longer paid, as the eventual fate of the Evening Standard all too clearly demonstrated. The villain of the piece was the internet in general and Google in particular. If news and comment could be had for free, then where was the justification for all those expensive reporters and columnists on mainstream publications? Freesheets appeared to dispense with these tiresome overheads, by providing a confection of cheap wire news and stale celebrity chit-chat interspersed by listings. At the same time, traditional distribution and marketing costs could be stripped to the bone. But it was fool’s gold. Display advertisers, the freesheets’ exclusive source of revenue, didn’t buy into the recycled pap of their content. The worst recession of the past 50 years has proved the freesheets’ coup de grace.

However, the immediate reason for thelondonpaper’s demise (apart from its shocking losses) probably has something to do with Rupert Murdoch’s newly espoused enthusiasm for putting all his content behind paywalls. Ideologically, thelondonpaper simply wasn’t in tune with the new gospel.

Is there a silver lining in this cloud for Alexander Lebedev’s Evening Standard – which now faces considerably reduced competition? We’ll have to see.

Have a look at my colleague Ruth Mortimer’s blog for more thoughts on what the “free” concept had to offer. Also, a possible way ahead for niche products such as City AM and Shortlist, in the FT.


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