Print confounds the digital doomsayers

Newspapers may feel they are under threat, but the media industry has successfully — and profitably — blended print and digital channels to keep readers and advertisers happy.

That’s just one of the messages to be heard in Cape Town this week at the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) congress and World Editors Forum, attended by about 1600 delegates from 105 countries.

Timothy Balding, the chief executive of the WAN, spoke to Business Times about industry trends. Some of the biggest issues facing newspapers are:

  • To remain confident about the future of print.

“Newspapers have gone through a deep period of doubt. Lots of doomsayers and pessimists say the web will substitute anything on paper. But the figures prove that is nonsense”;

  • To exploit merging opportunities to distribute information to a wider audience through a digital platform; and
  • To remain innovative and creative.

“There have been more print products launched in the past three years than in the past 30, with cheaper prices, more colour, and different approaches to news and information.”

Newspapers are becoming more sensitive to the needs of their audience, and a generation which has multiple choices.

Although newspapers’ print products are proving incredibly resilient, in even mature markets, in their print products. “But at the same time, “they are neglecting no opportunity to take readers on-line”.

But the vast majority of countries in the world where newspapers are published don’t face this dilemma, Balding said.

“It will be decades before the masses have Internet access.”

It is only in the US that sales of newspapers are declining; in Europe, they are rising.

Balding said newspapers have been building their sales in the face of growing competition from digital distribution.

He points out that in Scandinavia, which has high broadband penetration, newspaper sales are “extraordinarily high”.

Newspapers have also embraced digital channels, and claim higher audiences because of it.

The challenge is to make online news distribution profitable. “It is very difficult to find a successful business model,” Balding said. For most media groups, 95% of turnover still comes from print editions.

In Europe, and subsequently in the US, there has been a proliferation of free newspapers.

“The jury is still out on whether it’s good for the newspaper business,” Balding said. “After a lot of antagonism from big media groups, they’ve embraced them and publish them.”

Today, about 9% of the world’s newspapers are distributed without cost.

But a number of these free newspapers are coming under pressure, Balding said, and in the past few months, several have closed down in Britain and Poland.

Gavin O’ Reilly, the president of WAN and chief operating officer of Independent News & Media, said: “The prognosis for newspapers is actually quite different to conventional wisdom.”

Provisional data released at the beginning of the month by WAN, collected from more than 200 countries and territories, show that global newspaper circulation rose nearly 2% last year, and the number of newspaper titles increased significantly.

Paid-for newspaper circulation went up 1.9% year-on-year last year, to more than 510 million paid-for copies . The number of new paid-for titles grew to more than 11000 for the first time in history.

  • Free daily paper circulation more than doubled over five years, to 40.8 million copies a day;
  • More than 1.4 billion people now read a newspaper a day;
  • Print is the biggest advertising medium in the world, with a 42% share. Newspapers alone have 29.4% of global advertising spend

“Hidden in those figures is the fact that newspapers actually represent more than the combined advertising value of radio, cinema, magazines and the Internet,” O’ Reilly said.

  • Advertising revenue rose 4% in the past 12 months and 15.6% over the past five years; and,
  • More than 6-billion has been invested in newspaper printing and production equipment in the past 18 months.

Paris-based WAN is a global organisation and represents 18000 newspapers worldwide.

The conference runs until Wednesday.

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Print confounds the digital doomsayers