The UK newspaper industry has faced multiple challenges for many years but somehow it manages to survive.
In many ways it is a good example of how agile a business needs to be in the 21st century if it wants to continue, to prosper and to grow.
But arguably the UK newspaper industry is more than simply a business albeit, like all businesses it needs to cover its costs and make a profit.
Relevance is critical to having and retaining readers as consumers of content in what might be assumed to be a traditional supply and demand business. At its most basic, news is about informing readers about what is happening in the world, and in the country and region in which they live and aspiring journalists in training were often told that their purpose was “to entertain, to educate and to inform”.
Nevertheless, to the accountants, newsroom journalists have increasingly been seen as a cost, a drain rather than a contributor to the business’ profits.
Indeed, relevance is often more than simply news or indeed information.
So, costs started to escalate in the early 1990s largely due to the increasing price of the paper, much of which is imported from Canada and to falling circulation.
The development of web offset printing had already eliminated the need for type setters and proof readers and increasingly the focus turned to how to get more from fewer journalists and a near-epidemic of redundancies began, with a shift in the news-gathering model from in-house employed journalists to a mix of less expensive, young trainee journalists in house and freelance columnists.
At the same time, in attempts to retain readership, many papers, particularly the regional and local ones, started to include a great deal more content that could be described as lifestyle, celebrity and entertainment-related, reflecting a perceived change in readership interests.
But it is a tough and competitive business and by March 2018 the UK Press Gazette was reporting a net loss of at least 30 local newspapers in the previous year, while many of the nationals were struggling to make a profit. It said that Trinity Mirror closed more titles than any other publisher, with 12 shut down in total over the year and the collapse of family-owned Observer newspapers had led to the closure of all of its 11 titles.
In the local market, it reported, “Trinity Mirror remains the biggest regional publisher, with a total circulation of 1,598,285 across its 129 local publications.
“Newsquest was the second largest publisher with a total circulation of 1,344,379 across its 118 publications.”
Arguably, the digital revolution has had the biggest impact on the UK newspaper industry.
The majority of a newspaper’s profits come from advertising, and as more and more advertisers shift to online promotion the print and distribution costs of newspapers are significantly impacting profits. Like retailers, the switch to online distribution is taking a long time and the rate of online growth in profits is not sufficient to offset the rate of print related decline.
Nowadays, we take it for granted that our daily, or weekly, paper whether it is local, regional or national, publishes an online edition, which can be updated frequently throughout the day given the intense competition to be first with news developments in an increasingly fast-paced world.
Many national UK newspapers, with the notable exception of The Guardian which relies on appeals for contributions from readers, have introduced a paywall, forcing readers to pay a subscription to read many of their online articles.
The Independent, launched in 1986, and sold to the Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev in 2010 went online-only in March 2016.
According to an article in PR week last year “the Financial Times hit its target of a million paying subscribers a year ahead of schedule … and The Times and Sunday Times have around half a million paying customers, with the majority now digital-only. After years of making substantial losses, the Guardian announced a small operating profit for 2018-19.”
By contrast, over the last 13 years, it said, there had been a net closure of 245 local and regional titles.
There is no doubt that the explosion of social media, has led to arguably shorter attention spans and more impatience generally, not to mention a greater dislocation between where people live and their attachment to the locality and changed attitudes to local and regional papers.
However, the rise in concern about “fake news” on social media and subsequent fact checking services offered by some papers, may well improve readers’ trust in what they read in reputable publications rather than on social media.
In my view it is too early to predict the total demise of the UK newspaper industry, certainly at national level, but I hope also at regional and local level, not least as an antidote to the early-morning commute or as a pause in the daily office pressure for a mid-morning coffee and a quick flick through the paper.