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Can newspapers still afford to publish every day?

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Jasper Jackson, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, Newspapers


The business model of newspapers has been to publish on as many days of the week as possible for as long as anyone can remember. More copy sales, more circulation income = more profit.

But that could be about to change as the distribution model for printed media strains under the pressures of online competition and rising costs.

Newspaper publisher Martin Langveld is predicting the rapid decline of the publish-every-day business model favoured by US daily papers, with editions coming out two or three times a week.

We'd argue that here in the UK, publishers with daily and Sunday titles may also follow suit with further integration. Given the already low volumes of newpaper sales from Monday to Friday, how long before a national daily newspaper drops some editions or goes weekly?

A quick look at the ABC circulation figures shows almost every national UK paper sells significantly fewer copies during the week than at weekends.

The Indy sells just 74,000 copies on average Monday to Friday, and The Guardian sells 171,000 on an average weekday, less than half what it sells on a Saturday. Even the weekend edition of the Financial Times sells more than during the week.

Only the Daily Star sells more copies on an average weekday than at weekends.

There's certainly a precedent for cutting back on print schedules in the UK in regional media. In April last year Johnston Press announced it was turning five of its titles from dailies into weeklies as part of a "platform-neutral" publishing model, including 24-hour rolling online coverage and replica iPad edition. 

With the dire state of the regional press, Johston may have little option, but does it make as much sense for nationals?

So changing consumption habits are a compelling reason for cutting back on daily publishing, but is such a move financially viable? What are the key factors driving this change?

Newsprint costs a catalyst for change

This isn't something that gets discussed so much in the digital transition debate, but don't discount how much publishers pay for newsprint, production and distribution.

In the last year alone, both The Telegraph Media Group and Trinity Mirror have blamed newsprint cost rises for poor financial performance, with the latter claiming in April that it had seen a £22 million jump in the cost of newsprint in 2011 compared to the preceding year.

(Patrick looked at newsprint prices last year and found that despite a big rise in 2011 they are stable in the long term, meaning publishers can only complain so much)

Guardian News & Media used 56,210 tonnes of newsprint and magazine paper in 2011/12. If that paper was all bought on the open market at the current price of €500 (£405) then it would cost £22.5 million in paper alone annually.

The Saturday Guardian and The Observer account for around 41 percent of the group's total circulation. Of course, both are weightier publications than the weekday issues, but even if the two weekend editions accounted for as much as 60 percent of total paper usage, you're still looking at savings of around £9 million a year - not including production, distribution and the cut the retailer takes.

(paper pricing from FOEX.fi, reproduced with permission and thanks). 

Staff costs still a challenge for newspapers

But newsprint costs are only one factor here. The fact remains that many newspaper and magazine costs are too big in relation to their income. And their biggest cost is: people.

Using the Guardian as an example again, the publication is already looking to cut around 100 jobs as part of plans to shave £7 million from its editorial budget. 

Running a weekend-only publishing operation would make it more feasible to reduce those editorial numbers further (union opposition and inevitable strike action notwithstanding).

It could also enable cuts to non-editorial staff in areas such as circulation management, potentially protecting the positions in journalism which management say they are keen to preserve. 

Advertising

The flip side of cost savings from fewer editions is having less ad space to sell. But with audiences and ad spend moving away from print, it's no use hanging on to a mass audience based print business model when the audience is shrinking.

Reducing the frequency of publication could actually increase the value of the remaining print inventory. It's that audience ad buyers want, and if there are fewer oipportunities to reach that audience, your remaining ad space becomes much more valuable. 

UPDATE: Thanks to @PaulLomax and @RoryBrown for drawing our attention to a relevant point made at our Mobile Media Strategies 2012 event last year.

Simon+Kucher&Partners explained the myth around the supposed correlation between cover price and circulation. (full slide show here). The point is that demand isn't elastic, in the same way that putting up the price isn't matched by falling buys, reducing the inventory doesn't suddenly make advertisers want to place ads any less. 

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