20 December 2014

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Online cross-promotion ‘has no effect on print sales’

The former boss of Northcliffe’s regional websites has claimed that online promotion of their print counterparts had no impact on declining sales.

Robert Hardie left his role as digital publishing director at Northcliffe earlier this year after nearly a decade running its thisis network of newspaper companion sites.

In a blog post, he revealed that the performance of the group’s print titles was “totally unaffected” by whatever approaches were taken to the digital platform.

Robert was responding to former Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan’s recent In Publishing article in which he advocated more joined-up thinking between publishers’ print and digital operations.

Wrote Robert:  “John Meehan’s In Publishing article had much in it to be recommended, particularly its sensible approach to the daily-to-weekly drift and focus on tablets as the medium-of-choice for the next generation of news consumers.

“But at its heart is a presumption that print performance in terms of sales can be influenced either positively or negatively by digital performance, an issue John and I often crossed swords on when he was a Northcliffe print editor and I was digital publishing director.

“With 20+ daily titles to compare, we had the luxury of being able to take different approaches to content volumes/timings in terms of uploading to the websites and then look at their impact.

“At different times – often for very long periods of time – we uploaded all content and no content, full versions and truncated versions, pre-print and post-print, and on some websites we promoted the print title to the nth degree while on some others it was never mentioned.

“What was interesting – and sobering – was that no matter what approach was taken to digital, the performance of the print title was totally unaffected – the sales decline of otherwise identical papers was identical despite them taking totally opposite approaches to digital publishing.

“My instinct was that trying to sell one of your products by making another one of your products less good than it could be was not a strong marketing logic, and that turned out to be the case.”

In his article published last week, John posed the question of whether a newspaper’s exclusive in-depth splash should be uploaded in full to the web.

“Surely it’s better to refer to it online; promote the paper’s unique content; and drive conversation and follow-up angles on the website and via social media. Hardly rocket science, but does anybody do it, routinely? Indeed, are they allowed to?” he wrote.


  1. Ex-HDM Sub

    I completely agree with John Meehan. If I see FREE full news stories on a website why would I then toddle off to a shop to buy a 40-50p newspaper with the exact same news stories in it?

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  2. Pete

    Quite. Ex-HDM Sub

    The problem with people like Robert Hardy is that they exist in this very metropolitan, fashionable, affluent world where everyone has gadgets, iPhones, tablets etc and they spend endless amounts of time ‘engaging’ with each other. Now you would have to be a dinosaur to ignore progress and no doubt tablets (as well as as-yet uninvented new gadgets) will play a big role in the future.
    But sadly, Robert and his ilk (eg the Northcliffe digital geeks) have some kind of delusion that everyone is like them. This is simply not the case. If they chose to speak to people other than their digital buddies, they would realise that good print publications (if affordable and readily available) are still in demand and, in fact, thriving in many places – daily newspapers being the exception. And also, in many communities they are not super-obsesses with digital and gadgets.
    Northcliffe’s websites are beyond pitiful simply because they were created by this new breed of superdigitalgeek, all of whom have a default animosity towards anything so old as print. It’s sad, really, but true.

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  3. Dave

    Pete/Ex-HDM Sub, I think Robert has backed up his argument with firm evidence and experience that you are trying just to ignore.

    Also, Johnston Press have tried paywalls, they tried not putting content on their websites and it seemed to have little impact at all.

    What you are failing to grasp is that the product that people read their news on is changing because of affordable technology and more and more people now expect to access news via mobile phones, PC’s, Kindles and tablets (as John Meehan agrees).

    Even when I’m on the bus in the morning rather than read a free Metro, I’d rather use my phone app to flick through the national papers. It’s a lot easier and more convenient and I can find a better selection of news and viewpoints.

    To turn Ex-HDM subs argument on it’s head – why should I spend 40 or 50p on a news story (maybe the only one i’m interested in) when I can get so much information for free?

    If I can’t find a particular newspaper or story on my app. It wouldn’t particularly make me want to go out and buy a newspaper to find out. In most cases I’d just look for another source of information.

    I’d just think it was sad that they didn’t have a very good mobile phone app and I’d just browse the websites that did.

    It’s not just about the insular world of regional journalism, it’s not like people only access newspapers websites, they also use social networks like facebook and twitter as a source of their personal and local news nowadays. And more and more people are buying Kindles, sad for bookshops and book lovers but it doesn’t mean you should ignore the fact it’s happening and adapt.

    You have to accept that the means of production that newspapers once dominated because of the expense of setting it up – print – has now been replaced by digital which means that anyone can publish and print news quickly and inexpensively.

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  4. Robert Hardie

    Ex-HDM Sub, you would think so wouldn’t you. Any yet when we tried not uploading any content at all from a title it made 0 difference to the sales graph at all.

    Pete, I’m sorry if my point didn’t come across well. I’m not anti-print in anyway, I was just trying to say that what we proved was trying to use digital to drive up print readership didn’t work.

    Print product sales rise or fall according to the merits of the print product, not those of any accompanying digital presence, and readers make their own decisions based on lifestyle and engagement with the content not because they were told in one medium to try the other.

    We were simply unable to find any correlation between digital promotion of print products and print sales. No-one has else done so either.

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  5. Ex-HDM Sub

    And therefore print is dead?

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  6. Sue Denim

    Strong websites equal strong newspapers. The internet does not have to be a parasite draining the life from newspapers. Managed well, sites and print titles work together creating a virtuous circle where each promotes the other.
    People go online to read breaking news, then buy the next edition of the paper for the analysis and the reaction, then go back online to comment and look for updates.
    A site can have a page full of galleries and videos, then say ‘see today’s paper for four pages of in-depth reports’. Nothing has to be withheld, just play to the strengths of each offering.
    Increasingly we live in a multi-platform world. Our job is to provide the content on all these platforms in as rich a form as possible and allow the readers to consume it however they want.
    The Northcliffe centres which had the strongest sites – all content, multimedia, UGC – also had the strongest print titles.
    Those that did not make the most of the sites are now suffering.
    The sites, as they used to be, fostered new communities, opened the content up to wider audiences and strengthened the brand in a way no other medium can.

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  7. John Bull

    “My instinct was that trying to sell one of your products by making another one of your products less good than it could be was not a strong marketing logic, and that turned out to be the case.”

    Thank you Robert Hardie for saying what I, and quite a few like me, had been saying for a while.

    Journos were told that competition would come from the internet. For national and international news, print now, compared to say even 15 years ago, cannot compete. But local news, the real interest to local people, has suffered because of this belief that print could not compete with the virtual world. How many of the big regionals had lots of pages of national and international news? The three I worked for had one page in each edition. Just one. Unless something big happened.

    Nowhere else on the worldwide web were the stories that had made those papers “must buys” for decades. But there was investment and interest in the web. Print was left. Jobs were cut.

    If you want a good web page, shouldn’t you employ journalists – and good ones – to make it as good a read as it could be? That never happened. On the two Northcliffe “big hitters” I worked for, the web was not harnessed. It was an afterthought, often with stories just uploaded from the print edition. No thinking about investing in the web and making it different.

    But they cut back on print staffing.

    It’s funny how John Meehan and Robert Hardie, now ex-Northcliffe people, can say this openly now. Did they then? And if so, why did no-one listen?

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  8. Ex-Northcliffe digital geek

    Pete’s correct that perhaps there has (and is) some snobbery in digital circles about print, and forecasts of its demise has been greatly exaggerated. I agree entirely that there is still a sizeable audience for print products, including daily newspapers, and while things may ultimately go the way of digital, we’re still a good few years from reaching that point. Print is certainly not dead, although is may be reaching its more senior years.

    However, I also agree with Robert Hardy’s assessment that watering down, or withdrawing entirely, the news offering on the digital platforms would not lead to a rise in newspaper sales.

    On a personal level, I visit my local “thisis” website on a daily basis to have a quick look at the big news stories of the day and also those specific to my local area. However, if the ability to do that online was removed (or as has been suggested by John Meehan in the past, a 2-3 paragraph version of the story run online with a “See the newspaper for full story” message), it would not motivate me in the slightest to go out and start buying a copy of the newspaper each day instead.

    I would simply move on to other local news sources (which are ever-increasing) and lose all connection with my local newspaper as a brand. I suspect many other current visitors to local newspaper websites would do likewise. So, in that respect, I think Robert’s argument is valid that trying to use digital to sell newspapers has never, and will never work.

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  9. Luddite, t'interweb

    Big exclusive stories still sell. If the only place to find big story is in newspaper people will buy the newspaper……
    If this big story is teased from web surely that would increase sales.
    Only problem is newsrooms with no journalists can’t get enough big stories…..
    ps our digital department is run by people who don’t even have smart phones and think apps are a waste of time.

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  10. Goldfinch

    Print is dead innit

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  11. Dave

    Ex-HDM sub I don’t think print is dead, but journalism has to adapt to changing technology and supply and demand.

    I’m not an expert but would you agree that print technology is getting increasingly expensive whilst digital technology is becoming less expensive?

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  12. Freddie

    Interesting and I think you are all right to some extent. First of all, print is not dead … print is changing. Second, you are right, people want stuff for free. But don’t be deluded about ‘free’. An iPad is not ‘free’ … it costs money. As an example, today on Carphone Warehouse (just to take an example) a decent, but not top price iPad is £250 plus £25 a month. Let’s say you keep it for two years, that’s effectively £35 a month. So it’s not free. I accept you may do other things with it. And if you have a phone as well, that’s more money. Even a simple PC with internet access is not ‘free’.

    I will tell you what is ‘free’ – some of the decent hyperlocal news magazines which are delivered to every letterbox. Now 80% are awful but there are some good ones dotted around. And they are relevant

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  13. Jellywaver, Liverpool

    But Dave, as the recent (and excellent) Storyville documentary on the turbulence at the New York Times demonstrated very well, this information is NOT free. Aggregators can only grab what is subsidised by us print news buyers and broadcast organisations. Journalists need to be paid and the electronic outlets just aren’t providing the dosh.

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  14. appedout, uk

    what makes newspaper sales fall is not the web but loss of quality because fewer reporters are doing a lot more work; doubling up on paper, digital, photos, secretarial you name it. Net result is fall in quality of paper because not enough time to research in-depth material. Appreciate it is a harsh fact of life (not enough people to do paper and web properly) that can’t change in the country’s current bankrupt state, but I wonder if all newspaper directors know this or even care as long papers limp out on to the streets every week.

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  15. Reporter, Newsroom

    Surely one of Northcliffe’s biggest problems is that the digital business is completely seperate from the paper side. That leaves a web publisher quite often squabbling with the news editors over what exclusive content should go up and when. If the regional television reporter, or any other news outlet, knows something about a story, but the newsdesk doesn’t know how much the competitor knows, what should go up? Do the news editors allow themselves to be scooped by their own website? Do the news editors tell the web publisher the full story? Where are the lines of management? As far as I can see, it’s a massive grey area, a huge bone of contention for big stories and each decision is made on an ad-hoc basis without any clear policy.

    With regard to rolling news coverage on websites, it doesn’t work. Copying and pasting police press releases onto the website just doesn’t cut it and when there are four reporters trying to put out a daily paper there isn’t time to do proper web coverage.

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  16. ends, Yorkshire

    All Robert’s comments, and to an extent John’s, do is expose the polarity of opinion of most digital and print executives. When there is some real collaboration instead of point scoring we might start making some headway.

    And let’s not forget that Robert’s digital model at Northcliffe is almost entirely founded on the work of the journalists working for the print titles. Click through rates on any other element of the websites is poor to say the least.

    It’s easy enough to throw up reporter’s copy and claim you’re providing a good service but how would Robert’s sites have worked if he had to pay the overheads of a newsroom? Digital revenue is currently desperately poor so it’s difficult to argue the sites are actually providing any benefit at all for the company.

    On balance, they have to be taking away more from the print titles than they have ever put in.

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  17. Blustringer

    It works better the other way round – promoting the website in the news paper nearly always increases traffic.

    Dunno if this helps the bottom line.

    But there we go.

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  18. Jim

    Newspapers will always have some basis in print, but is the business model viable any more? About time, newspapers had at least a long-term plan for web only. If not just cut them altogether and concentrate dwindling resources on what they can do best now – the web.

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  19. Dave

    It seems that the issues that concern people the most on HTFP are about the content from the newspaper appearing on the web, but aren’t we ignoring the elephant in the room, with the real issue being about classified advertising?

    If homes, jobs and motors move away from print to digital won’t the revenues to digital go up and newspapers decrease?

    Paidcontent have a very interesting article here which backs this up to an extent.


    If that is going to be the trend doesn’t it then make sense to have Newspaper websites that are as good as they possibly can be?

    Restricting content won’t do that. As Robert has said restricting content just makes the digital product weaker and it doesn’t have any impact at all on newspaper sales, which are declining at any rate as people switch their reading preferences.

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  20. Ex-HDM Sub

    I don’t think print is dead (innit), and I don’t think going solely digital is the way forward either. It’s so difficult to get a happy medium between print and the digital domain, but what’s the solution? It would be interesting to see what would happen if all news websites (including the BBC) began to charge online users for access to their sites, but I cannot see that ever happening.
    You’re right, Dave, that print technology is getting increasingly expensive – look at all the closures of many Northcliffe printing presses throughout the country. That has instantly stopped local, up-to-date news and that is what consumers demand! It would be interesting to see if corporations will ever bring back local printing centres? But it’s the age old problem of cost that will prevent this from happening.
    Unfortunately, I believe there are too many newspapers available and I believe it’s inevitable a large number of them will eventually go out of business. But the big question is how much profit is enough for these news corporations/shareholders to stop further cutbacks from happening again and again?

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  21. Paul Linford, HTFP

    @Pete ‘The problem with people like Robert Hardy (sic) is that they exist in this very metropolitan, fashionable, affluent world where everyone has gadgets, iPhones, tablets etc and they spend endless amounts of time ‘engaging’ with each other.’

    He lives in Derby, mate, not flipping Notting Hill!!

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  22. John Meehan, Hull

    At the risk of prolonging the debate, I feel I should respond to some of the points made by Robert Hardie and others in this comments string.
    Firstly, I must stress that I was never given the actual evidence that different approaches to web publishing had no effect on print performance. I was told that was the case, but I would have preferred to see substantial and robust evidence to that effect, especially as there was growing actual evidence from canvassing which told a different story.
    In the absence of that evidence, I was strongly of the opinion – and remain so – that a strategic and joined-up approach to print and digital publishing was required, which played to the strengths of both.
    I would also like to make clear that I never advocated making the digital platform “less good”. On the contrary, I favoured striving for excellence in both print and digital publishing through content and platforms that were differentiated, complementary and cross-promotional. My position has been consistent on this and was expressed consistently, as Robert knows.
    I have never been a supporter of posting 2-3 paragraphs online with a “full story in the newspaper” plug. That is an over-simplification and a very “blunt instrument” approach to what is, I acknowledge, a very difficult challenge.
    I am also surprised that one of two of those who have commented have presented me as on the print side of a print vs digital battle. That ignores the commitment I made to developing a genuinely multi-media culture while I was an Editor and Regional Editorial Director and also the content of my article, which has prompted this debate.
    To fully understand my position, I suggest Hold The Front Page readers take in my article, via this link:

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  23. appedout, UK

    summing up; Newspapers and web need proper staffing levels to work. They don’t exist in any company now because of staff being slashed, for whatever reason.
    Talk about quality is pie in the sky until some more recruits can be found, in about 2017 if the economists are to believed.
    Reality might be about to strike the media industry in a big way in 2012. Never hoped so much that I am proved wrong cos I will be one of those out of work.

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