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What next for publishers?

View the full What Next for Publishers report

2016 saw more job cuts at The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, the closure of The Independent print edition and a decline in both ad revenue and share price at The Daily Mail and General Trust. Writing in The Financial Times, John Gapper stated that “Fleet Street is following Britain’s regional papers and US metropolitan ones in being hollowed out.”

Populus has spent the last three years working on twenty different research projects for local, regional and national titles covering dailies, weeklies and weekend editions. Here, we explore the four things we’ve learnt – and one big question, what is next for publishing?

1 – Distribution is king:

The ultimate challenge every publisher faces is to get a copy of their product into the hands of potential readers. With so much content (especially news content) now available so easily and for free, there is no longer an onus on any potential reader to seek content out. We have found that many lapsed or non-newspaper readers don’t start out with the intention of stopping reading their newspaper. Instead something tends to happen to trigger their non-readership; a newsagent stops delivering, or the reader changes their route to work so they no longer pass a news outlet. The problem is, that once people stop reading a newspaper they get out of the habit very quickly and soon find alternatives.

In London, The Evening Standard is long established as a freesheet while across the rest of the country regional and local papers have come under attack from The Metro. We’ve worked with our clients to think of ways to get the content into the hands of their readers leading to major changes in distribution and pricing strategies such as free, peak-time distribution in city centre rail stations.

On a grander scale, the challenge for publishers at the national or more premium ends of the market is also how to get the physical copy of their papers into the hands of potential readers. We would hypothesise that the classic model of waiting for potential readers to come to you is a strategy that no longer works, or needs to become more enticing.

2 – Understand the Media Moment:

Populus’s extensive research has uncovered what we call Media Moments. These are points in the day when readers and potential readers have a moment that they need to fill. The modern consumer claims to be more time poor than ever, but their day is sprinkled with moments of downtime that they look to fill. The instinctive reaction is to reach for their phone and unlock the myriad of opportunities that live on their device. However, modern consumers’ needs vary in these moments; sometimes they are passive, sometime they require stimulation, sometimes they have 20 minutes to fill, sometimes only thirty seconds.

By truly understanding these Media Moments we help our clients develop strategies and content to best serve their readers and potential readers. Through this understanding our clients have developed strategies such as placing print editions into the hands of readers on the commute, varying the length of articles to fit the length of the moment, or considering the format that content is delivered in.

3 – Have a clear, modern proposition:

In the face of budgetary restrictions, regional and local newspapers responded by cutting jobs, thus reducing the amount of relevant, new, news content. Without the content to fill the papers out they lost their relevance and have become heavily reliant on syndicated content which puts readers off. In extreme cases, titles like The Coventry Observer filled the entire paper with listicles. The further local and regional titles have moved from their core-proposition the faster they have hemorrhaged readers.

National titles and premium publishers must take heed of the mistakes made by local and regional titles. We’ve worked with national titles who had responded to dwindling print numbers by moving further and further away from the core of their proposition. We helped them to relearn what readers, lapsed readers and non-readers thought about them and wanted from them, before helping them to shape a modern iteration of their brand.

4 – Learn from digital:

Reading print is generally associated with habitual, more relaxing moments where the title is curated by experts and provides lots of depth. Both readers and non-readers are fond of these print attributes, but they increasingly feel outdated. We know that digital media is usually fast, broad (not always deep), really convenient and allows the reader to self-curate or guide themselves.

We’ve run a number of creative workshops with clients (research, marketing and editorial stakeholders) to develop strategies for successfully incorporating digital attributes into print editions – far beyond simply reprinting social media content in the paper.

The Big Question: How to successfully translate print to digital?

It is obvious to everyone that print is suffering at the hands of digital. Some titles have successfully managed to transfer there print content into websites or apps, but many titles lost the magic of their print offer when moving to digital. At worst, some titles have ended up with divergent identities in print and digital which leads to reader confusion and can be damaging to brands.

As a reflex clients often think print first and digital second despite their best intentions. They approach digital with a print outlook, maintaining the primacy of the written word and failing to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities that are available digitally.

Digitally your competitors are Facebook, YouTube and Google, not just the traditional news outlets. Given the limitless availability of free content in the digital space we believe that the challenge for print titles of all types lies in thinking beyond the written word and making a creative reappraisal of what print content can be digitally.

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