People have been talking about the end of print journalism ever since the first intrepid web 1.0 bloggers plugged in their modems and starting writing (SEO) headlines. Circulations have been in steep decline since at least the late 90s. But somehow the papers are still sitting there on the newsstands, evolving to endure their ever harsher conditions like microbes clinging to life inside a deep sea volcanic vent.
There’s only so long you can resist the market tides, however. For a long time the weakest of the dailies, the Independent will publish its last print issue on Saturday 26 March (it remains online), having sold its more successful spin-off the i to Johnston Press for £24m. At the same time, News Group Newspapers, which produces the Sun and the Sun on Sunday, just published accounts showing a £253m loss for 2015 – in large measure because of a £204m write down of its brand and goodwill valuations.
And why not? The Sun’s daily circulation is currently around 1.7 million. As recently as 2010, it was three million. There aren’t many industries that have experienced a collapse in volumes of that magnitude as a result of digital disruption.
The trend isn't good. Source: ABC.
The big question is when it will stop. Will print’s decline level off as it forms a new equilibrium with online? If so where – half of current circulations, a quarter? Or will online media gobble up print entirely as time and money conscious Millennials and Generation Z-ers replace the older demographic that just likes the feel of a newspaper?
Clearly it’s too early to tell. There are some signs of hope though. According to February’s ABC figures, the circulation of Britain’s national dailies and Sunday papers declined only 4.5% on 2015, to 15.6 million. That’s hardly great, but it’s nothing like as rapid a decline as has been seen in recent years. Between 2012 and 2013, for instance, overall circulations fell by 15%.
In large measure, this is because of the tactics the media have adopted to respond to the digital invasion. Paywalls have worked for the FT, which has convinced a large chunk of its readership to pay for a hefty online subscription, and the Times, which is unique among the dailies in largely preserving its 400,000 or so print circulation since 2012. (Indeed, Times Newspapers, which also publishes the Sunday Times, recently announced a £10.9m full year profit, bucking the trend of losses, while Nikkei valued the FT’s cash generative business sufficiently to fork out £844m for it.)
Free and very low cost papers have been the other growth area. The Mirror’s New Day joins the i and the Star at the super-cheap end of the market, while over the last decade or so City AM and the Evening Standard have joined the Metro as free papers. Both subsets of print media have on the whole bucked the trend of decline.
Those who haven’t gone down the low cost route have faced a tough choice. They recognise that the future is online and have scrambled to increase their traffic, largely to great success (the Sun is a notable exception - its now defunct paywall held it back as its rivals expanded, proving the subscription route clearly isn’t right for everyone). But in order to get ahead of their rivals online, they have effectively had to cannibalise sales of their newspapers. Why pay for content, after all, when you can get it for free?
Unfortunately, an online user just isn’t as valuable as a print customer. Look at the Daily Mail, which has increased traffic to its website, purveyor of the world’s finest click-bait, by 550% since 2009. It now has over 14 million daily users, but that only brought in £73m of revenue last year (up 18%), compared to £499m (down 7%) from its 1.7 million print customers.
This doesn’t necessarily doom media companies to being mere shadows of their former selves, but it does mean their often painful transition from the good old pre-internet days is probably far from over – and it would be wishful thinking to assume the Independent will be the only one not to make it.