What’s been going on…

James Evelegh’s roundup of some of the news stories that caught his eye over the last couple of months.

By James Evelegh

What’s been going on…

There are few subjects more bone dry than VAT rates. In fact, I feel myself drifting off already.

Yet, they are highly pertinent to publishers and the discrepancy between the VAT charged for our print products (zero) and for our digital products (20%) not only causes administrative headaches, but also makes our digital products less competitive.

Industry bodies have long lobbied for VAT rates to be harmonised (at the lower rate, obviously) and were given a boost in October with the EU’s decision to allow member states to apply lower VAT rates to e-publications.

As a result, the PPA, NMA and others redoubled their efforts to get the chancellor to finally address the issue (#AxeTheReadingTax) in his October budget, but to no avail. Philip Hammond made no mention of it.

He’s clearly got other things on his mind, as the normal business of government grinds to a Brexit-induced standstill. I suspect we won’t see any progress on this – or indeed much else – until Brexit is sorted, one way or another. Don’t hold your breath.

Acquisitions & investments

One of the more eye-catching deals of the period was DC Thomson Media’s acquisition of Aceville, publisher of about forty brands in the craft, gardening, health and food sectors.

Both parties seem happy: Mike Watson, CEO at DC Thomson Media: “This acquisition will materially change our landscape and is a key step in our Protect, Launch, Diversify strategy.”

Matthew Tudor, MD at Aceville: “They have great heritage and credibility in the publishing industry and I’m looking forward to working together to strengthen the combined portfolio,” although he mustn’t forget to update his home page, which still proudly proclaims Aceville to be “one of the UK's leading and fastest growing independent magazine publishers”. For Aceville, independence is a thing of the past.

Elsewhere, Euromoney (who seem to feature on these pages every issue) offloaded more non-core assets by selling Mining Indaba, which gave Andrew Rashbass another opportunity to restate his strategy: “where a good business does not align with our strategy, we will sell it and recycle capital towards our main investment themes.”

Earlier this year, InPublishing interviewed Peter Ashman, CEO at BMJ. He talked about the development of BMJ Ventures – an innovation initiative intended to future-proof BMJ’s business.

The rationale was as follows: to balance the desire for BMJ not to spread itself too thinly against the need to learn about new technologies through partnering innovative third party start-ups. The longer term goal is to generate new revenue streams where possible from next generation products.

Peter was as good as his word: in October, BMJ announced that it had acquired a minority interest in health tech startup, Patchwork. Patchwork connects hospital trusts directly with locum clinicians, enabling them to book shifts in real-time without having to rely on agencies, so helping them better manage staffing levels and improve patient safety.

If you’ve got any spare cash lying around, then Johnston Press is up for sale, at a fraction of the price it was valued at fifteen years ago: testament to an industry under huge strain and, in JP’s case, mountainous debt, incurred financing its earlier rapid expansion – something which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Strong brands and heritage and a great deal of time and effort already invested in digital transitioning – surely there must be a buyer out there.

Finding your voice

2018 might turn out to be the year of ‘the voice’, when podcasting started to gain real traction and publishers started to realise that voice assistants like Alexa were there to be taken seriously.

The Guardian, no stranger to podcasting, strengthened its commitment to audio with the launch of a new daily political podcast – Today in Focus – an in-depth look at a key news event, hosted by Anushka Asthana.

This was followed in early November with the launch of Guardian Voice Lab – an in-house team dedicated to experimenting with storytelling and delivering journalism through smart speakers and interactive audio.

Christian Bennett – executive editor, multimedia, at The Guardian: “It's important that we get to understand how future platforms can work for journalism as the platforms are still being built. This allows us to build a space for innovation and experimentation at the centre of the organisation and give them the time to explore the possibilities of voice technology.”

Not to be outdone, the FT unveiled FT News Briefing, an audio rundown of the top global business stories of the day, designed for use with Google Assistant / Home and Amazon Alexa.

“Through data and research, we know that our consumers, who are generally time-poor, are looking for easy ways to access FT content via smart speakers and audio platforms,” said FT’s Alastair Mackie.

Meanwhile, in magazine media, Vanity Fair has launched a new podcast series, The Making Of…, in partnership with Grow by Facebook and Founders Forum.

Kate Slesinger, publishing director: “Through this partnership, we will welcome guests who are extremely distinguished in their field, to share their personal stories as well as their journeys of growth and development that will inspire listeners.”

Girl power

If the vibrancy of a brand can be measured in PR column inches, then Stylist is having a sensational twelve months. The title went large on the Suffragette celebrations earlier in the year and appears to have kept the energy levels up ever since.

In October, they marked the ‘UN International Day of the Girl Child’ by (bravely) handing over the reins to a group of schoolgirls aged 5-15. This is the first time a mainstream consumer media brand has allowed all of its content to be created by children, say the publishers. I don’t doubt it.

The girls joined the Stylist team to produce the magazine, Stylist’s daily email Emerald Street for five days and for a day.

Lisa Smosarski, editor-in-chief: “We so often hear about how girls and teenagers feel about the world, but so rarely give them a platform to hear their voices directly.”

The issue’s 14-year-old editor Grace – who is clearly one to watch – commented: “Being a girl today is also three other words: scary, exciting and empowering.”

Also in October, Stylist unveiled a new TV show, Stylist Women of the House, a “safe space” designed to allow discussion on current topics ranging from women’s representation in Westminster, abuse on social media, the effect of alcohol in the Houses of Parliament and Brexit.

Hosted by Sky News presenter Isabel Webster, the pilot episode’s panel consisted of three female MPs: Kemi Badenoch, Hannah Bardell and Jess Phillips.

Smosarski again: “This year we are campaigning to make women more visible in all walks of life, but when you consider that just 32% of MPs are women you realise that there is still a long way to go. If we are not 50/50 in parliament, we are not being truly represented and not setting an example to the rest of society. At Stylist, we want this to change.”

Launches / relaunches

Dennis is looking to capitalise on the huge success it’s having with Buyacar, which now accounts for 40% of its turnover, by further expanding its footprint in the automotive sector. Last month, it launched

Editor-in-chief Steve Fowler: “All the research and industry trends point to a market explosion for electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid models. But our research points to a real gap in buyers’ knowledge, too. Now is the perfect time to fill that gap with DrivingElectric, providing clear, concise and jargon-free content on our website and across a range of social media channels, including YouTube.”

No doubt, it will dovetail with Buyacar at every opportunity, forming a virtuous revenue circle.

For a number of years, if someone from Dennis was presenting at an industry conference, the chances are they would be talking about The Week, or more recently, The Week Junior. Now, all they want to talk about is Buyacar, and you can see why they’re excited.

A couple of other significant relaunches in this period: Firstly, Guardian Weekly has turned itself into a magazine, which seems like a sensible thing to do, since its competitive set would all appear to be magazines.

Secondly, The Big Issue unveiled a completely new look, which marks the culmination of months of research and development by art director Ross Lesley-Bayne and editor Paul McNamee.

“We listened to what readers told us about what they liked, we looked at what worked, we got rid of things that had served well but were unnecessary and we introduced new elements”, said McNamee.

Alternative revenue streams

There was yet more evidence this period of publishers developing new revenue streams outside their comfort zone.

The Times and The Sunday Times launched The Times Academy which offers online short courses created by academics and experts.

Topics include history, politics, health and the arts. The courses are delivered through short videos, discussions and Q&As with journalists including Daniel Finkelstein, Oliver Moody and Nancy Durrant.

The New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times is looking to secure its long-term future with the launch of a “business incubation hub” at its Hampshire HQ.

The IncuHive New Milton offers a manufacturing lab, office space and investment and mentoring opportunities and will, MD Eddie Curry hopes, “provide the financial support we need for the newspaper”.

Esquire, Hearst’s men’s magazine brand, has launched The Esquire Edit – a capsule collection of limited-edition menswear staples, consisting of sixteen co-branded wardrobe staples including t-shirts, sweatshirts, underwear, jackets, bags and sunglasses.

Also offering a capsule collection, and just in time for party season, is Vogue. Working with Reserved, they have put together a collection of styles for women, inspired by the “heyday of the 1980s and the effortless glamour of Studio 54”. It is, promises Vogue, the “ultimate New Year’s Eve edit”.

Prices start at £24.99 and items are available in sizes 6-18, apparently.

Membership rules

And, finally, if anyone was still in any doubt about the trend towards paid-for content strategies, The Independent announced the launch of its Independent Minds membership scheme.

Editor Christian Broughton: “This is not simply a case of creating a paywall. Building on the success of recent years, we are now offering additional exclusives and new benefits for those who support us directly through a modest membership fee, inviting readers to shape the The Independent with us, join the debate, come to meet us in person – giving our core readers a real sense of value and membership.”

With The Guardian recently announcing that it had received financial support from more than one million people in the last three years, the writing is clearly on the (pay)wall: reader revenues are the future of publishing.