Tis but a flesh wound

Much has been written in the last week or two about the death of newspapers. The announcement that the Independent will cease its print edition has prompted this hand-wringing and outpouring. The Independent’s hobbyist owner, Evgeny Lebedev, has offered up his own wisdom about the situation. In an interview with the Guardian he claims his rivals are “in denial” about print.

“I genuinely believe that the future is digital and that the industry is in denial…” he says, positioning himself as the pioneering leader of an otherwise moribund pack.

I chuckled when I read this, in the patronising way only a long-in-the-tooth, seen-it-all-before old dinosaur can. Evgeny is not to be ignored, and he has done some interesting and innovative things, but he could easily be accused of a certain amount of denial himself.

While print might be a rapidly declining market in both circulation and advertising terms, it remains the case that for certain newspapers print is still profitable.

Not, I agree, for everyone, and if you were the proprietor of a newspaper selling around 50,000 copies a day in a national newspaper market which manages to sell nearly 7m copies daily, carrying on would have started to seem irrational quite some time ago. Being in last place, with under 1%, isn’t exactly a glorious place to be in any market. In a declining market, less so. In a declining market with high overheads and reducing yields, less still.

So fine, Evgeny, shut down your print titles. Can’t imagine why you didn’t do it years ago (unless, of course, the reason why a mysteriously wealthy Russian former spy buys a failing British newspaper isn’t just because he’s interested in the bottom line).

But Evgeny’s digital dream is almost comical. For the Independent to have a future, digital or otherwise, it has to have an income. Ideally, unless it plans to rely on charity, it should have more income than expenditure. Which as countless newspapers have found, is a bit of a challenge in the digital domain.

It’s not like the Independent is the first to try this, but the precedents are not good. Going “digital only” is a usually prelude to going bust or carrying on in name only, trying to attract enough traffic to bring in a dribble of cash. That’s because “digital only” tends to mean, other than in niche areas, ad-funded.

Unfortunately ad-funded means a rather unreliable revenue stream, since increased traffic only converts a fraction of the increase into meaningful ad revenue. It also means a rather uncertain future because the online ad marketplace is one largely out of the control of any site which is seeking ad revenues. If you’re running to stand still, you’re doing rather well.

So success as an online newspaper is elusive. As so many have shown, it’s relatively easy to drive audiences to numbers which dwarf print circulations. What’s much harder is to convert those audiences into profitable or even meaningful revenue streams. So the usual approach is to try to cut costs, to acquire audience for the minimum possible investment, or keep spending and produce a fantastic product sustained by the hope that popularity will eventually deliver meaningful revenues. Just ask the Guardian and the Daily Mail how well that works out in practice.

Which means Evgeny’s high-minded promises to retain the services of high priced journalists and foreign bureaux are unlikely to survive the brutal reality of the digital only world for long. If he really believes that this transition, and the promised re-investment of freed-up capital, will lead to growth then he’s either talking about growing something other than profit, or he’s a fantasist.

The truth is that until the internet grows up enough to deliver meaningful, reliable revenue from online audiences, this sort of transition will continue to end in failure. Giving up print is simply giving up. For the Independent, which has struggled to commercially viable for much of its existence, it might be finally succumbing to the inevitable

It’s a very sad day because for all its failure the Independent has been a great newspaper, editorially proud and brave and with lots to admire. At least that’s what plenty of people I respect say. Personally I never read it much. Which I think probably explains the problem – I wasn’t alone.

Not enough people wanted to read the Independent. That’s why it failed. When the digital life support machine is finally turned off it will be the end of a painfully prolonged death. If Evgeny wants to invest in anything, in the meantime, he should try to make it something which might actually change the online marketplace into one where it’s possible for newspapers and other content businesses to thrive. That’s what I have been working on.

But that requires a strategic vision which extends beyond just brave and unrealistic rhetoric.

Farewell, the Independent. You were great. Rest in peace whenever you are finally allowed to.

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