Newspapers – acclimatising to the modern consumer

Modern consumers, especially the young, want to consume news where they are, not where newspapers want them to be, and they want it packaged in the style they’ve become familiar with on social media. Distribution, packaging and audio-visual are all key to newspapers’ future success, says Charlie Beckett.

By Charlie Beckett

Newspapers are becoming not newspapers. Yet at the same time, the paper product is undergoing something of a patchy revival that suggests that the digital revolution is spreading unevenly and even, in some cases, going into reverse. Clever newspaper strategists are doing it all: developing their online offer to meet the new demands of a mobile video market but making sure that their legacy offerings are fresh and competitive. This is not about print versus pixels. The consumer wants both and they want them to be much better.

Print still has value…

Any newspaper executive examining their balance sheet will tell you that there is still huge value in the ‘pick up and read’ product. Look at the phenomenal success of the Financial Times’ weekend magazine How To Spend It. It generates enough glossy adverts for luxury cars, clothes and watches to pay for the equivalent of that newspaper’s extensive network of foreign bureaux.

The Financial Times is fortunate in having wealthy readers who can often put their combined newspaper and digital subscriptions on expenses. But it is not just the top end of the market that is making a profit from paper. The Independent’s spin off i, recently acquired by Johnston Press, is also garnering enough advertising revenue and sales to be profitable. Meanwhile, the free London Evening Standard continues to make money by giving a similar quick read but with a lighter tone to the capital’s commuters.

It all shows that newspapers that tailor their product directly to their readers’ lifestyles and needs can find an audience without the help of Facebook or Google. That physical paper is still the embodiment of the brand. When broadcasters review papers, it is the front pages that they show, not an online article.

… but it’s declining

However, advertising revenues continue to struggle more than expected, causing havoc at newspapers like the Guardian which have not controlled costs. And the long term trend for newspaper sales is still down. Clever promotions and a relentless focus on improving the editorial quality gave the Times a brief upward tick and the halving of its cover price sent Daily Star sales up for a moment. But the numbers are inexorably getting lower. This is not going to change much soon. It is partly caused by deeper social shifts such as people’s changing habits at work and at home. But it is above all about the continuing dominance of our media lives by an ever-expanding range of digital devices and networks.

All the research shows that young people, the customers of the future, are increasingly getting their information, entertainment and commentary through social media. They are generally using mobile devices, especially smartphones, and they expect their journalism to appear via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. They won’t go to a website direct, instead they expect you to seek them out wherever they are online.

This means having content made not for a newspaper or even a newspaper website. Instead it must be designed, written and delivered specifically to suit the style and shape of the other content on those platforms in a way that understands how people behave online. Generally, that means shorter, snappier, more personal articles and, increasingly, with visuals and ideally, video. All the statistics show that you need images to grab people’s attention. Once you have their attention, you need to deploy more novel techniques to retain it. That will always be about great stories and good writing. But people also demand more.

Data visualisation

One encouraging area has been so-called ‘data visualisation’. Newspapers that invested in teams of a new breed of designer / programmer / journalist have found that graphics are popular with readers who want something explained in a more intelligible and entertaining way. This can just mean a pie-chart for a tweet but the best content is also interactive allowing the reader to explore the information and to relate it to their own lives. What newsrooms are finding is that when done well, these data visualisations can not only go viral but have ‘stickiness’. ‘Big picture’ explainers such as the Guardian’s map of UK government spending will still generate traffic months after budget day. It is critical that newspapers invest in this area and do not leave the field to the digital native news organisations such as BuzzFeed who already excel at the new formats.

Resurgence of email

All is not yet lost to the digital intermediaries like Google and Facebook who write the search and social algorithms that help connect the consumer to the content. Recent research by the Polis think-tank that I run at LSE shows that good old-fashioned email is an increasingly effective way to get your product to people. Email has not been replaced by other products such as Facebook Messenger. Email newsletters are a great way for everyone from retailers to football clubs to showcase their wares and to build up brand loyalty. Publishers can do the same. But they do have to be very well produced and crafted to tempt the subscriber in without wasting their time. Details such as the optimum time of delivery are vital to maximise open rates and ‘click through’. American newspapers have been very adept at creating both general and specialist email newsletters that keep the customer coming back direct to their websites and to their own advertising rather than Facebook’s. Papers like the Financial Times and the Guardian in the UK have also invested in them but there is still room for growth in the market before everyone’s inboxes become inundated.

Video with attitude

Another key area for content creation is video. Newspapers are now in direct competition with digital native news organisations such as Vice which creates a wide range of video. Vice makes serious investigative films, long-form reports from war zones, as well as lifestyle and entertainment features. Their style is much more direct, informal and unencumbered by some of the artifice of conventional mainstream broadcasting. The films are as long or as short as the material merits. And it is hugely popular. Increasingly, Vice’s audience is not just young people but a wider public who are looking for original content about fresh topics. They want video that has ‘attitude’ but shows them the world as it is rather than packaged to suit a TV news bulletin. These are exactly the kind of media-savvy people who are interested in journalism that newspapers need to reach. Generally, news organisations such as Vice are not so focused on breaking news and more mainstream coverage so there is an opportunity for newspapers to learn the style lessons but to bring their own added value.

Short and sweet

Video is not just about little movies. Channel 4 News’ chief correspondent Alex Thomson makes brilliant TV news films. But as he roams the world with his camera crew, he also posts short smartphone video clips on Twitter and the short-video sharing website Vine. It means he is ‘broadcasting’ as he works. It builds a significant following who enjoy the videos. They show the story that he is covering and give insights into the journalism itself. But it also means those people are more likely to tune into the evening show or watch the finished product on the Channel 4 News website. Newspaper reporters need to do the same. It is not enough just to tweet that you are at a press conference or a fashion show: the public want to see it for themselves.

Be a trusted source

Great exclusive content will always be the best kind of video. Very often this will be material that is created by the public themselves and posted on social media. Newspapers are getting much better at harvesting this. However, to keep their reputation for authority and trust they need to make sure they do it tactfully. That means contacting the source and crediting the producer. They are also sourcing video from non-journalistic sources such as the police or universities. It is vital that newspapers add value by using their journalistic skills to make sure that the content is verified and put into context. We are now in a world of abundant video that is often created by PR companies or special interest groups. It is crucial that newspapers are trusted to curate the content in a critical and informed way. They need to filter the fakes and correct the bias. For newspapers, seeing must be believing.

Of course, it helps if you have the rights to content that is desirable. The Times’ Goals videos give instant replays of key moments of Premier League matches and a highlights packaging stream that gives the customer a mini ‘Match of the Day’ when they want it, which is always ‘right now’ and ‘on my smartphone’. Another strategy is to do everything. The Daily Telegraph’s video offering ranges from breaking news to golf tips. Investment in production can produce results too. The Guardian has high quality videos that would grace any news and current affairs TV programme as well as a plethora of short clips of news stories. This all brings the newspapers into direct competition for eyeballs with those broadcasters. Which is why the Guardian especially, with its desire to reach a global audience for video, is so concerned that the BBC does not use its licence fee revenues to dominate the international market for video news. One big help for newspapers seeking to build their video offering would be if the BBC allowed them all access to its publicly-funded archive.

Creativity is king

In the end, though, video online and consumed through social networks is all about creativity. A good example are the short AJ+ films made by Al Jazeera and distributed via social networks like Twitter. These cleverly use graphics and captions so that they can be watched without sound - a vital feature for people using their smartphones in public. They are fast-paced, attractive looking and reported with a bit of attitude that some people will find too subjective. But it is very compelling for an audience who increasingly seem to prefer their video news when it has a point of view. People like to share content that says something about them and their identity as well as telling us what is happening in the world – the combination of video that is designed rigorously for the new platforms and that has a strong brand identity works.

Video is just one example of the multiple opportunities facing newspapers as they continue to reinvent themselves. The digital developments are not going to slow down. The strain on revenues is not going to decrease. The extension of ad-blocker technologies to mobile, for example, presents yet another challenge for those who rely on that business model. The increasing role of digital intermediaries such as Facebook means that newspapers are going to have to negotiate with much bigger media beasts to make sure their content cuts through. The ones that survive will be those who protect the authority of their brands and retain the trust as well as the attention of a public who appear to have an insatiable appetite for good content as long as it is given to them how they want it. Newspapers have always had to be competitive and in the UK, ours have a great tradition for just that. But now they also need to get creative.