In the fast-moving world of recent newspaper launches and closures, one learning point stands out above all others: readers are unwilling to pay for old news in a new format, however much you dress it up.
It’s hardly a surprise: the industry – regional and national – is already struggling to persuade readers to pay for old news in current print formats.
Indeed, a few editors are almost proud to boast sales declines of only 5pc; most only begin to cringe at falls of 10pc-plus; meanwhile, quite a few are regularly wringing their hands at plummets of 20pc and more.
So why on earth did anyone ever think those same readers were going to start spending hard-earned cash on the same old news just because it appeared under a new masthead?
The New Day, Trinity Mirror’s national that was born in February and buried in May, had already strongly hinted that this was the case (and yes, each edition carried two or three ‘exclusives’ but, in the main, this was a pretty thin paper carrying 75pc or more of yesterday’s news).
Now the fledgling 24, ‘the North’s national’, has closed after less than six weeks of publication, again after finding (surprise, surprise) that not enough readers were willing to pay for old news in a new format.
Miller Hogg, chief executive of 24 publisher CN Group, helpfully spelled this out for us in his closure announcement: “We were specifically trying to see if there was a disenfranchised national readership from those who wanted their national news without any spin or rhetoric. This audience in the scale we need is obviously not there.”
Why not? It’s stating the obvious again, but it’s because 24 and The New Day didn’t have enough content that readers couldn’t find free of charge elsewhere (on the web, on the radio, on TV) at least 24-hours beforehand.
Archant’s Berliner-sized weekly is now continuing into week five and beyond because far more readers than expected are buying it. Sorry, say that again? Yep, far more readers than expected are buying The New European. And here’s why:
- firstly, the majority of its content is new and unique;
- secondly, and crucially, you can’t find this content anywhere else – you have to pay for it in print (or pay for an online app); and
- thirdly, the content covers a specialist subject and, as I blogged last month, has been prepared for an enthusiastic audience.
Yes, we now know that ‘readers just won’t pay for old news’, so what a brilliant but simple idea to target the opposite instead: ‘let’s get readers to pay for original content ’.
When we say ‘pay’ it’s not just spare change: whereas The New Day was 25p/50p and 24 was 40p, The New European is a whopping £2, and yet tens of thousands of people are happily shelling it out every week.
And if it works for a publication focusing on the European debate (current politics aside, not always the most enthralling topic), why not use the same approach for another subject? Let’s consider the above three bullet points again, in short:
- content that’s new and unique;
- content you can’t find anywhere unless you pay for it; and
- content that covers a subject that a definite audience wants to read about.
It’s not even an original approach: it’s exactly what titles as varied as the Financial Times and Private Eye have been doing throughout the years of online growth.
They’ve successfully challenged the dominance of that online ‘free for all’ beast by insisting on exclusive, print-only content (Private Eye) or an online paywall (FT), and now The New European is once again proving that this works (print only or online app – both paid for).
Could this work elsewhere? What about a new publication containing exclusive content on sport, leisure, business or even for a particular geography that no-one else is covering? Why not charge for your bespoke content – print, online or both?
The alternative is even more daring: stick to what you know best and deliver old news, or at least covering what everyone else is covering as fast as possible, but give it away for free.
What, like Metro, and the Evening Standard? Um, yes … assuming that most local and regional papers can’t save their businesses by creating exclusive content that people will pay for, perhaps they should consider the free paper route to survival.
Fact: when last a paid-for daily in 2009, the Evening Standard was selling fewer than 250,000 copies a day; now it’s completely free, and 900,000-plus copies are given away every day.
The result? Advertisers who seem pretty chuffed at an audience three or four times the level of what it once was.
So roll-up, roll-up and take your choice: launch new, paid-for titles with jealously-guarded, exclusive content that people will queue to pay for, or relaunch what you’ve got as free papers that turn old news around fast enough to give away to more readers.
But please, can we stop expecting readers to pay for old news? Because they’ve told us several times that they won’t.