How does our press emerge from lockdown? Part Four: Has the paywall dice got any spots?

I hadn’t planned even to write the third installment of this series but now, here is the fourth! Events of the past few weeks have been playing on my mind and I think it’s worth sharing.

Recently, those of us who follow the Belfast Telegraph on social media will have noticed that it was actively promoting the fact that its “premium articles” would soon only be available to paying subscribers. Hugo wrote an article in anticipation of it happening a couple of weeks ago that was implemented. There is now much less available free of charge from the Tele.

Then this weekend JPI Media, owners of the News Letter, announced that paper is also about to go behind a paywall, along with the continuation of a compulsory 10% paycut for all employees earning between £22,500 and £40,000 pa.

I’ll acknowledge a personal interest. I spent the first twelve years of my career with the Belfast Telegraph and five later years with the previous owner of the News Letter. I also spent many years in the major regional dailies in other major UK regions.

So, it’s a media sector that means a lot to me and one that I want to survive and thrive. But it’s the sector for which I have the greatest concern. I fear it is being squeezed to the benefit of national morning and local weekly titles, where circulation has not fallen as dramatically.

The current independently audited and published average daily sale of the Belfast Telegraph is 31,340 (including 7,144 copies distributed free to hotels, hospitals, etc). That’s 355 more than the Irish News. The News Letter sells 11,076, a figure boosted by Farming Life each Saturday.

A couple of decades ago (in another world completely) the Telegraph sold over 125,000, so that’s a decline of approximately three quarters and there’s no evidence that it has bottomed out. The News Letter has declined by a similar percentage while the Irish News has dropped by just a quarter.

I partly attribute the better performance of the Irish News to early timing in going behind a paywall when there was still sufficient demand for the product on offer.

I’m primarily citing the Telegraph here because as a brand we can all relate to how dominant it used to be on counters, street corners, newsagent frontage, etc.  Prior to the National Lottery, the Belfast Telegraph was the premium product all small shops wanted to stock.

In the days of the local newsagent, it was the product that brought people in for the daily visits that led to more profitable purchases. That was the case in cities and towns all over the UK, and with the Evening Herald in Dublin. But they were evening papers.

The only news brand available in the afternoon, offering an up to date news service unavailable anywhere else. They weren’t “papers of record” and generally they weren’t intended to be intellectually improving.

But no other news brands gave communities such a thorough mix of local news and sport every afternoon. They had brand loyalty like no other. And they were very, very profitable.

The question mark over this strategy is whether or not it assumes too much brand loyalty from readers. I fear it does. I was always led to believe that loyalty to a daily newspaper was based on habit. That why the home delivery network was so important.

I worked on a newspaper in Wolverhampton that sold just short of 200,000 copies. 75% of those were home delivered. That was 150,000 guaranteed sales 52 weeks a year! The owners spent a fortune every year to maintain that until migration online of the highest yielding ad revenues from Jobs made that strategy unsustainable.

The Belfast Telegraph had around 60% which also demonstrated an incredibly high level of reader satisfaction.

The determination not to break the habit led us to come into frequent conflict with newsagents over the publisher’s insistence that they still opened and home-delivered on the likes of Boxing Day, Easter Monday and the Twelfth.

The fear was that if they couldn’t get our paper one day they might try another, and like it more. Even worse they might just not miss their paper and so cancel it.  All papers had that fear but the strong ones also had the muscle to do something about it.

The reality is that the habit began to break more than a decade ago and the gap between papers and their traditional readers has been continually widening ever since. COVID-19 has put overwhelming pressure on the remaining loyal readers.

They are predominantly older and the very people who won’t have been able to get to their local shop each day in the absence of what’s left of the home delivery network.

Age notwithstanding, those older people not increasingly have access to online news sources. They’ve been forced to use them in recent months. So, by necessity, they’ve become more switched on to how to access news quickly, from wider sources and for free.

For its “premium” content the Belfast Telegraph is charging £7.99 per month for the basic online package. By any terms, that’s a very reasonable price, and it’s less than the Irish News (£15 per month).

But in 2020 we need to also consider that it’s in the same ballpark as Spotify and Apple News, Netflix and Amazon Prime.

I couldn’t get through a day without Spotify and my life would be diminished without the two streaming services. They’ve stopped being luxuries for most people and are now necessities. Just like newspapers used to be.

So, if you’re already paying maybe £140 per month for your media (including Sky) will you pay more for online newspaper content? For brands that have lost a lot of their former traction?

In my case, there are three columnists in the Telegraph whose work I really like – Eilis O’Hanlon, Malachi O’Doherty and Suzanne Breen. As a Glentoran supporter, I like to know what various media are saying about the Irish League. But that’s were it stops.

The News Letter actually punches above its weight on local sport, considering it lost a very strong Sports Editor and a very good football writer in previous redundancy programmes.

Newspapers stopped “breaking news” in print a good fifteen years ago or more, as the internet rendered it impossible to “hold” a story of any significance until publishing time. I’m not looking for a job, a car, or a new house so its advertising isn’t going to attract me.

The best possible time to introduce paywalls was fifteen or so years ago was the time. When people still felt they needed their regional daily newspaper. That’s when the Irish News did it with the success that has extended the lifespan of the brand.

This is a measure that may generate (or maybe simply replace) revenue in the short term, but also has the negative effect of alienating the current high number of waverers and driving them into the hands of other information providers.

I sympathise with the editors, journalists, and sales staff in the regions. For a couple of generations now they have been isolated in a world-changing at an unmanageable pace.

Rather than have the breathing space to build brands thoughtfully and strategically, constantly firefighting to extend the life of an increasingly obsolete business model, they have belatedly plupmed for paywalls which, for many, be a final throw of the dice.

I fear this particular dice has no spots! Are regional dailies like the Telegraph, News Letter and Irish News saveable in the medium or even long term?

We have an opportunity to see for ourselves both north and south of the border through the recent purchase of Independent News & Media (INM) by the Belgian media company Mediahuis. This is a relatively new company, just formed in 2013,

It will be interesting to see where the priorities of Mediahuis lie. In the Republic INM accounts for more than 50% of the daily newspaper market and more than 65% of the Sunday market. In Northern Ireland, based on an estimate from the TGI Report in 2018, INM papers account for around 17% of the daily and between 34-40% of the Sunday market (this is readership rather than sales as sales figures are not universally available in any generally accepted format).

So did they actively want the Belfast stable of titles, or did they primarily want the national stable they bought in the Republic (where they also took control of nine weekly newspapers, some of them very strong brands in very strong markets)?

Consider that the entire INM group sold in 2019 for £125.2m, compared to the £300m INM paid for the Belfast Telegraph & Sunday Life alone in March 2000. It gives an indication of the magnitude of the task facing Mediahuis.

Where will the Telegraph fit into their list of early priorities and can Mediahuis revive the fading Belfast Telegraph brand?

What may be a positive for the Telegraph is that this is a new business, unburdened by either the moribund thinking or the “manage decline” mentality that has hung over UK and Irish publishers for a decade and more, with reduced paginations and weak content without considering their online offerings.

So, at least, there is no legacy of business failure in Mediahuis. They will however need to decide if their priority is to save and grow print, or to reposition the brands as a genuinely attractive online proposition rather than a few repurposed print stories.

Belfast Live has a relatively young, progressive editorial team with an eye for the quirky, the different, and the interesting. They turn stories around quickly. With no legacy to protect and if handled right it may well outlast its print sister the Daily Mirror.

It may be easier for Mediahuis to focus on using some of their younger, more talented managers and writers with their strong market knowledge to develop new brands of this nature (Joe.ie is another good example) while ultimately allowing the market to over time make its effective decisions on older brands like the Telegraph.

The readerships are rapidly ageing and not being topped up. It may well be that progressive publishers decide to let that take its course and attract a younger online audience through the new brands.

Someone someday soon will crack the challenge of monetising these brands. Why shouldn’t that be Mediahuis?