Newspapers have been "in denial" as they tried tricks and gimmicks to increase or maintain their circulation, and are guilty of pressing the "digital panic button" according to the man in charge of the London Evening Standard and Independent newspapers.
Speaking at our Digital Media Strategies 2013 conference in London on Wednesday, Andrew Mullins, MD of Independent Print Ltd, the holding company owned by Alexander Lebedev, said that newspapers have been run like loss-making football clubs.
"You had editorial who were creating products not for consumers but for themselves and were measuring success by ABC audited numbers," he said.
"When you have a business driven by this topline number, you get low price content and promotions, as most newspapers companies were. They were in denial - putting copies into airlines and hotels and protecting that top line figure."
Mullins isn't himself in denial about the advance of digital media, but he's a realist: "Ultimately we will go digital and it will be quality digital but how do you get there?'"
Mullins explained how the Standard went from losing £12 million in 2006-7 to losing as much as £26 million before going free in 2011
"Instead of pushing the digital button we thought: 'newspapers - is there a future for it?'
The answer, of course, was to go free: "When we looked at the Standard we thought we had a unique opp which is the commute home. We thought if we can get this right maybe we can stop people going over to digital."
And the results are staggering:
-- Average daily distribution has risen from 260,000 a day as a paid-for title to 700,000 as a freebie (ABC).
-- Total readership is up from 490,000 to 1.6 million (NRS)
-- Costs are way down: from 9,000 newspaper stands and outlets across the capital to just 300. Instead of three editions a day - immortalised in the Cockney street-cry of "final!" - there is now just one.
-- And from a huge loss to the first profit in 12 years.
At the same time, the paper knew it needed to change its perception. Anyone Googling Evening Standard a few years ago, Mullins says, would have found sandwich board headlines mentioning death, cancer, bombs, terrorism and crime.
"A big part of the solution was to change that... It was making people ashamed and not proud of the city they lived in. They had had a hard day at work, they didn't want disaster."
The Independent and i
From 1996 to 2011 the story of the Indie was one of decline. With a short reprieve from going tabloid, and from ubiquitous covermount giveaways, which Mullins calls "desperate attempts to keep circulation alive".
"You can't get to profitability by cutting costs," he says. "You have to have growth. Promotions don't work... all the bulks and foreign (distribution) was hiding the truth that you were in decline.
As for the i, people were buying quality newspapers but not buying them, Mullins says. They were long, verbose even, and were a result was products that journalists wanted to see but readers weren't so sure.
As Mullin s puts it: "Don't let editors decide what the product is, why not create something that readers want?"
In the i all articles apart from a handful of opinion and feature pieces are 350 words in length. And the best bit from a media business point of view? The i needs six editorial positions to function - most of whom reformat content from The Independent.
The result? A combined cross-sell proposition across Independent and i of 340,000 purchases a day - the highest circulation the Independent brand(s) has enjoyed since 1996.
Mullins's talk was full of little common-sense actions that were for some reason out of reach of previous generations of publishers, such as publishing in foreign territories.
"In truth, if your business model is based on banners and buttons ... are you really going to make money? Are you going to be profitable?" asks Mullins, with a refreshing break from the common orthodoxy on online advertising.
"We have not spent millions on our digital stuff, we've improved our website... but we haven't lost any money ever on it," he says.
And what of London Live, the forthcoming local TV service provided by the Standard's parent company from early 2014? Mullins says the service will have cumulative losses of £15 million and will take four years to recoup that investment.
Putting it mildly, Mullins says "local TV is not a huge money spinner - anyone who put in their bid they were going to make lots of money probably lost their bid."
But making the TV station part of a wider media empire, that might have a chance.
Image via Flickr courtesy of sampsb used under a Creative Commons licence.