Sleeping with the enemy

In the face of ever increasing cost pressures, how can the newspaper and magazine industry ensure a sustainable future? As Chris Birch, IT Director at News UK, tells James Evelegh, there is one option which would have been unimaginable a few years ago – working with rival publishers to share costs and expertise.

By James Evelegh

“Our strategy at Newssolutions is collaboration,” says Chris Birch. “By working with other publishers, we all reduce our individual costs.” News UK has massive scale – three state of the art print sites, a large logistics operation and an IT department numbering over 250 people. The company has spare capacity which it is starting to offer to other publishers – competitors and non-competitors alike. Publishers who take advantage of these services stand to make considerable savings and the additional revenues will make an important contribution to News UK’s overheads. It’s a very straightforward, win-win proposition.

But can rival publishers really co-operate when they are so competitive? “Yes,” says Chris, “from our perspective, we compete at the newsstand, not in getting there.”

Last November, News UK set up a new division, Newssolutions, to market their print, logistics, operations and, for the first time, IT services to the wider publishing market.

News UK’s IT services is the subject of my recent chat with Chris on the sixth floor of their impressive new offices, next to the Shard at London Bridge.

Whilst sharing print and logistics has been commonplace for some years (Newssolutions already prints The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Evening Standard, Metro and a number of regional newspapers as well as distributing a number of newspapers and magazines), some might baulk at the idea of sharing IT services – a bit too close to the beating heart of a publisher’s operations? How safe will our world exclusive, running in tomorrow’s edition, be from prying competitive eyes?

“Confidentiality is in the very DNA of our operation,” says Chris. “We take it incredibly seriously; any lapse would be commercial suicide for us.” The News UK IT department currently services not only News UK titles, but also other News Corp companies like Dow Jones (Wall Street Journal) and Harper Collins, so it is already organisationally set up to service multiple and fiercely competitive clients. A good example of the integrity of News UK’s third party offering was the MPs’ expenses scandal, so sensationally exposed by The Daily Telegraph in 2009. Despite being printed at a News UK print site, the first senior Times editors knew about the story was when they saw the Telegraph on the newsstand the next morning, just like everyone else. “Client confidentiality is the cornerstone of our offering,” says Chris Birch.

What the Newssolutions IT offering has, is capacity, expertise and, unlike other large providers of IT services, an unswerving focus on publishing.

The range of IT services offered is extensive and too long to list here. The key thing, says Chris, is that “we tailor the service level to the needs of the publisher, who can utilise as much or as little of our offering as they wish. We anticipate some publishers starting off with just one of our services, and then growing that to encompass more, but that is up to them. Also, it’s fully scalable – we have something to offer small and large publishers, for titles with one thousand subscribers through to those with over a million. Our services are intentionally competitively priced so that they are affordable to a wide range of publishers.”

The need for top-quality IT services

Efficient and accessible IT support services are critical for publishing success, but are very expensive. Larger publishers might have their own in-house help desks, but are they resourced properly? “Do you have proper call management protocols, service level agreements and do you work to independently accredited quality standards? If the answer is ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, then you’ll know that it does not come cheap. Alternatively, you might have off-shored your IT support needs using one of the big generic IT services providers, in which case, you’re probably paying through the nose for a poor service where both language and lack of publishing expertise are a real frustration. Medium sized publishers probably have an overstretched IT team struggling manfully to provide a good service, and small publishers make do as best they can!”

“Through pooling resources, we can offer all sizes of publisher dramatically improved performance in this critical area.”

Nowadays, IT impacts on every aspect of publishing. At one extreme, inadequate contingency planning can leave the whole business vulnerable to major system malfunctions, whilst at the day-to-day level, thousands of man-hours are lost when journalists / production staff / marketing people struggle unproductively with desktop bugs.

A lack of out-of-hours support means that the first thing many publishers know of the midnight website crash and subsequent eight-hour downtime will be when they get in, in the morning. Similarly, lots of publishers have no one to run the important pre-7am multiple device integrity checks on their daily apps and digital editions.

Newssolutions’ Technical Support Desk and Production Processes Team operate 24/7, supporting, amongst others, News Corp Australia, out of their dedicated support centre in Peterborough. They have been ISO 20000 (the international standard for IT service management) accredited for three years and they can provide you with as much or as little support as you need. “If IT support, in all its myriad forms, is a frustration, then we can definitely help.”

“Publishers need to ask themselves,” continues Chris, “where does our competitive advantage lie? Is it in providing top quality IT services … or in providing compelling editorial content and sharply focused marketing?”

“It’s the latter of course, and, with the headcount pressures on publishers, it is important to maximise the number of your people engaged in revenue generating, client facing activities and to minimise the rest. It is not that these functions are not important – far from it – it’s just that they can be done so much better and more cost-effectively using shared resources.”

Cutting edge software

It’s not only in IT support desk services that Newssolutions can make a difference; some of the cutting edge software that News UK has developed over the past five years is also being made available to other publishers. Indeed, Chris anticipates that the licensing of their access control systems will become particularly popular.

The paywall debate is one of the defining digital issues of our time. Can publishing be funded through advertising or should readers be charged to access content? News UK has been at the forefront of the debate from the start.

In the early days of its paywall, News UK had no option but to try a third party solution, but it was not a happy experience; “slow, clunky and prohibitively expensive and quite unable to deal with the required number of transactions per second”. Being the first major publisher into this space, they had to develop their own access control system, and the result, says Chris, is “simply best in class”. Super-fast, robust and highly sophisticated – it can manage paywalls and controlled access in all its forms and even cleverly pulls off the trick of enabling article sharing from behind a paywall.

Whilst The Times and Sun have adopted a paywall approach, News UK knows that there are a range of access options between the totally-paid-for and the totally-free models, including registration and metered approaches and this functionality has been plumbed into the software.

Similarly, the access strategy does not have to be site-wide. Publishers can select parts of their site (right down to individual article level) to put behind some sort of barrier, but whatever strategy a publisher adopts, a robust, scalable and super-fast access control system is essential. Anything less will result in either the publisher being shortchanged, as savvy users employ a number of techniques (clearing cookies being one) to get round their controls, or, worse, the would-be subscriber becomes frustrated and goes elsewhere.

News UK believes passionately that getting readers to pay for content is the only sustainable future for publishing, but even if you don’t buy into that, most publishers accept that the potential for making money from readers needs to be explored. This is impossible without a sophisticated and robust access control system. “As I see it,” says Chris, “you either develop your own, and that’s very expensive, or you use ours… it’s a multi-tenanted system, built to share.”

Apps and digital editions is another significant part of their offering. The Times was one of the first newspapers onto the iPad and, as a result, News UK has progressed a long way up the learning curve. Their app production system is battle hardened and flexible, and can deliver everything from simple replica page-turners, through purpose built apps like The Times to customised spin-off apps like the successful Sun Goals app.

Sustainable future

Whilst the print and logistics side of Newssolutions’ offering is well established, it is early days for their IT services, although a little bit of stealth marketing has already uncovered considerable interest from both magazine and newspaper publishers.

“We expect the business to grow substantially once publishers start to see the considerable cost savings and advantages to be had from pooling resources and sharing expertise.”

Fight like cats and dogs at the front end, but collaborate at the back end. Such an approach will help us all to secure the long term future of professional journalism, believes Chris.

“What we want,” says Chris, “is to chat to IT Directors and COOs to explain our offering. Being publishers ourselves, we know the kind of pressures they’re under, because we’re under them too! Given our size, we are convinced that there are areas of our operations which other publishers can utilise to achieve considerable cost savings, improved productivity and enhanced performance. Just contact to set up an initial chat. I look forward to talking with you.”


The News Building, 1 London Bridge Street, London, SE1 9GF

Chris Birch, IT Director

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