On a really good day this blog gets around 20,000 hits. That’s the same as the WEEKLY circulation of Scotland’s best-selling local, The Falkirk Herald.
“Hang on”, say newspaper folk; “yon interwebby hits are a lot different from paid-for newspapers, matey”. Well, I couldn’t agree with that more. So when the same newspaper folk tell us how many squillions of hits their website has had, we need to remember what their view about those hits really are. Hits aren’t money of themselves. If they were, I’d have made a shedload from this website. Which, for some reason, I haven’t.
The other thing some newspaper folk do is emphasise how much their digital revenues have gone up. So embedded in this story is a note that the Johnson Press titles have increased their digital revenues by over 30% in the last year. However, as the headline points out, overall Johnston Press (JP) revenues are down 6.8%. This is because digital revenues are still only a small fraction of most titles’ total revenue. But there’s another interesting thing going on in that headline, too, isn’t there? That is, JP revenues are well down but operating profit is UP. You what?
JP profits are up because Ashley Highfield, the CEO there, was hired from running the BBC’s huge digital effort (before that, he worked at Microsoft) to do two things at JP. First, to make huge cuts (over 25% to date) which more than outstrip the revenue decline to date. Second, to introduce a coherent digital strategy which will enable the JP to continue to exist in a digital age (whatever that might bring). Highfield didn’t have a track record as a businessman nor as a press guy. While he’s cut ruthlessly as any experienced CEO, many others could have done this. So Highfield and the JP are interesting not so much because of the cuts but because Highfield was hired primarily for what JP owners will be hoping comes next i.e. cuts plus prodigious increases in on-line revenue equalling a going concern.
But is that actually happening? Here’s the website of the Falkirk Herald, JP’s original local. It looks pretty good, much like the, er, Yorkshire Post. So, there’s been a big corporate effort and the same formula’s being applied to all JP newspapers (along with a hard copy format refresh). Editors are being ditched, new journo hires are being contracted at tragically low rates, content’s being widely shared, and so forth. Yet is anything different really being done which’ll bring in massive new online revenues? Apparently, for example, journos in the Falkirk Herald newsroom have been issued with cool video kit – where’s the evidence of that on the website? But more important, where’s even the scope for huge new online revenues to replace declining circulation and advertising? Look hard at the website and think about that. Paid-for local, online content? Really?
The fact is that the Ashley Highfield hire, with all its implications for the rest of the industry, has not as yet delivered anything beyond slashed costs and another year of 8% return. And here’s an interesting thing I can’t find referred to anywhere else.
With the knowledge that paid-for circulation remains terribly important, Highfield has said that after the new digital and format launches referred to above, circulation revenues are up by 6%. Indeed, in the same excellent article, the Guardian’s Mark Sweney writes;
“Successive relaunches are getting better and better at driving revenues,” he (Highfield) says, quietly confident that 2013 could be the landmark year that sales income returns to growth for the first time since the last halcyon days of the regional press in 2007. “I’d be disappointed if we saw a circulation revenue decline this year.”
Really? Here’s the Audit of Bureau Circulation (ABC) figures for the Falkirk Herald which cover the period of the re-lauch (November 2011). Highfield is saying in March 2013 that circulation revenues are up from re-launch, but in fact the Falkirk Herald (a weekly, not daily, so in theory more profitable) figures DROPPED over that year by MORE than they had done in the previous few years. And what about since then, i.e. since December 2012? Well, we don’t know, because JP newspapers seem to have stopped reporting six-monthly figures for its weeklies to the ABC then. Their next figures, for the Falkirk Herald and many others, will not be published until Feb 2014 – 14 months since the previous reporting period. 14 months when advertisers have had to take Highfield’s comments about circulation growth on trust.
National and international players charging for full content access are moving towards squaring the online revenue circle. Can that work for locals? Highfield, who is certainly a man to watch, believes digital display is the future of the industry (see Sweney article above). Yet he’s a newspaper novice, so some caution is surely necessary here. Certainly, It’s hard to see things working out for local newspapers in their current format (why in God’s name should public sector employers pay millions to subsidise JP websites? How long can politicians justify cash to local papers on the basis of Granny checking to see who’s died this week?) so maybe Highfield and JP have a different horizon in mind. For my own part, i think JP represents a bigger financial risk than the market suggests at the moment. Certainly, if I were an advertiser I’d be demanding far more recent figures than JP is making public through the ABC (and if the ABC figures don’t matter, what’s their point?).
But I’m not a newspaper guy. I’m a politician, just about. And I can see some astoundingly crap journalism and editorial values creeping in, and not just at the margins. Over the last year or two I’ve been seeing more and more stuff published in ‘proper’ newspapers taken word-for-word off the internet, stuff that’s incoherent and poorly-written, even stuff which has already been published in exactly the same form in the same paper. The cuts are biting, particularly amongst the regional/local press (that includes the likes of the Daily Record and The Scotsman in Scotland). But in the end, if it’s crap then no-one will pay for it (or pay to advertise in or on it) because you can get crap for free on yon interwebby thing.