What matters more, profit or influence? For small media enterprises like mine, it’s difficult to choose as both are reliant on each other. For established,
iconic multi-nationals, however, the question has just become even more relevant – if difficult to answer.
New figures show that Britain’s first digital-only newspaper, The Independent, has returned to profit for the first time in 20 years.
It says that revenues from digital advertising have grown by 45 per cent year on year and it believes revenues for 2016 will hit £20m.
The turnaround is because earlier this year the newspaper, after 30 years of being one of the British media’s most iconoclastic outfits, ceased publication.
Its Russian owners, the Lebedev family,
sacked many of its most experienced journalists six months ago, hired some far younger (and cheaper) ones, saved a fortune on printing and distribution
and went online only.
The drastic moves stemmed losses. Last year, Independent Print Ltd – which ran the newspaper – made a pre-tax loss of almost £7m and had net liabilities
of £69m. To keep the company afloat, the Lebedevs loaned it almost £8m.
So the new figures point to quite a turnaround - but at what cost? Douglas McCabe, a senior consultant at Enders Analysis which measures the influence of the British media, believes that the audience the newspaper once attracted and abandoned – thinning though it was
– is still hugely attracted to print and thus desired by advertisers. He said: ‘While the Independent is still an important force in UK political
life, there are consequences to its reduced visibility for consumers.’
Those consequences have, conversely, been seized upon by owner Evgeny Lebedev who this week announced that the digital-only strategy has ensured the
title has a sustainable future. He has pointed to a significant growth in the online audience – it hit a peak of almost 22m unique users in June
after recording more than 15m in February. The most recent figure is closer to 16m which compares to MailOnline’s 26m and The Guardian’s 24m, figures
obtained by the research firm ComScore.
A pleased-with-himself Mr Lebedev said: ‘By going online we freed ourselves from the unwieldly infrastructure of print, and allowed ourselves to be
more flexible…by being nimble and digitally-focused we can better serve our new much bigger audience online.’
Which may be factually correct yet just as true is the fact that the Independent simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to. The hard-hitting campaigns
that made it such an essential piece of the media framework – campaigns such as those for electoral reform, opposing the Iraq War and environmental protection – have been replaced by clickbait. Among the
most recent popular stories include one about a cat, wearing socks, that was pulled from rubble after surviving the Haiti hurricane.
Yes, the digital paper still employs star names such as foreign correspondent Robert Fisk and political commentator John Rentoul, and what they say
still matters to the audiences that have stayed loyal to them. But the thirst for younger readers has led The Independent into an even more perilous
arena. Once it was competing with newspapers with bigger budgets and even more loyal readers, now it is competing with Buzzfeed, Huffington Post,
Vice, Medium, Twitter…the list is, ominously, endless.
And they all have much more clearly defined identities and audiences. At the moment, the Independent is known for something which it is not – a newspaper.
A newspaper that wielded enormous influence. But not any more. It might be making money but it’s not making waves.
Perhaps that’s the lesson that its print rivals need to heed before contemplating similar moves. A quick profit isn’t everything.
We’re used to famous people plugging products within the features sections of newspapers – and increasingly on the sports pages - but is it right for them
to do so in front-page splashes?
On Sunday, The Sun touted a remarkable exclusive interview with one of the nation’s most respected sporting heroes, Sir Ian Botham. In it, the former
cricketer ‘revealed’ that he was undergoing a new kind of therapy to combat erectile dysfunction. The piece was rather wonderfully labelled a ‘Testicle
The bizarre story became one of those rare 24-hour publicity-generating phenomenons that public relations specialists can only dream of. Botham’s ‘story’
was subsequently picked up by almost every single newspaper and was posted onto almost every leading news website (The Guardian being an exception).
But is it a story or just an artful piece of advertising for a product – or what’s come to be known as content marketing?
A spokesman for News UK, which publishes The Sun, insists it’s genuine: ‘We don’t splash on stories that are plugs for products. The Botham material
definitely had serious news value.’
Indeed, it did. For within the three-page ‘story’, Sir Ian urged all men who are worried they are suffering from impotence, or are worried that they
might one day suffer from it (ie, every single bloke) to get themselves checked out and find out more about this remarkable new treatment.
He’s been having Vigore Linear Shockwave Therapy all summer and, after his final session, proudly announced in the newspaper: ‘I’m a male and men do
have problems and you have to front up to them. There’s no downside to this only a big upside.’
Which is both a brilliant double entendre and a neat way of asking: is there any other ‘upside’ to this alleged story?
For instance, what’s the relationship between Sir Ian, Vigore and Dr Sherif Wakil, who treated the former cricketing hero and now Sky Sports commentator?
Indeed, what relationship does The Sun – owned by the same company as Sky – have with Vigore, a brand which, in the space of a single article,
gets six name checks over a double-page spread together with a graphic which shows how the treatment allegedly works. (By increasing nitrous oxide
to increase blood flow within the penis and repair damaged tissue, if you must know.) How were the ‘facts’ of the story attained and then verified?
And here’s the most intriguing thing of all – Sir Ian doesn’t even suffer from erectile dysfunction. He’s fine when it comes to sex with his wife Kathy
(who has had to endure years of Sir Ian’s extramarital liaisons, now thankfully in the past he adds somewhat sheepishly at the end of the article).
So here’s a ‘story’ about a man who doesn’t suffer from something saying that all men who do suffer from it should run along to Harley Street and pay
a substantial sum of money to have their nether regions zapped by a medic who, incidentally (and according to another red-top, the Daily Star),
also offers penile enlargement operations.
A ‘story’ given credence, authority and authenticity by an editorial operation that is quite willing to plug a product without wondering if, in fact,
it’s simply giving free advertising. Or has it accepted the free advertising in return for a highly-readable Sunday ‘exclusive’ with a celebrity?
It’s certainly not an unusual way to present content, especially when it comes to health. Just a few months ago the Mail on Sunday splashed on its
front page, turning to Page 3 and then a spread in the features section, how X Factor judge Louis Walsh was getting hearing aid treatment from
Specsavers, even though he’s not yet lost his hearing.
And the day after the Botham splash, The Sun carried a ‘story’ with Cold Feet star Jon Thomson in which the ‘Telly funnyman’ admitted that he’d been
having hair transplant operations so that he wouldn’t look like such a ‘bald thug’ when out on the dating scene. His favoured Farjo Hair Institute
was name-checked in the fourth sentence.
All three celebrities, I’d argue, are helping to market products that may well benefit the wider public, yet we’re not being told if they have any
kind of relationship with the brand involved. Intriguingly, Louis Walsh has quite a history of plugging Specsavers as of its brand ‘ambassadors’.
This is content marketing brilliantly manipulated to look like editorial – and it’s everywhere at the moment. Usually, it’s accompanied by a small
banner or logo saying something like ‘In association with…’ Not long ago the Daily Telegraph found itself in hot water by plugging HSBC
bank without noting that some of the articles appearing on the editorial pages were actually marketing puff-pieces.
The separation between the two is becoming increasingly blurred and, personally, the opportunities are enormously exciting. After two decades in newspapers,
I now run my own company providing content to brands who understand the enormous power of a story well told.
Disgruntled with ineffective public relations and hugely expensive advertising campaigns, these brands want something more subtle and shareable, less
sales-like and – crucially – interesting to read. In other words, journalism that sells rather than just informs. And thus stands a decent chance
of creeping into the press by masquerading as news.
In fact, a recent report compiled by Yahoo and media experts at Enders Analysis predicted that content marketing spend in the UK will rise 179.2 per
cent to £349 million in 2020, from £125 million in 2014.
There’s no point in being sniffy about it. For instance, any journalist who’s ever written a positive travel article having benefited from a discount
or freebie has indulged in content marketing.
In a world flooded by content from who-knows-where, the best material will always rise to the top, the smartest brands will pay for it and the most
capable creators might make a decent living from it. It’s journalism but not as most of us know it – now it’s wrapped around PR and marketing.
The important element is that such material appears in traditional media outlets. A survey this month from Ogilvy PR showed that ‘three quarters of
respondents agreed that traditional media holds more sway than paid, direct-to-consumer, and social channels in North America and EMEA’.
And as The Sun showed this weekend, it’s the kind of journalism that every rival publication copies without even questioning its merits, creating astonishing
ripples of publicity.
There’s opportunity in every crisis. Just look at Brexit. While most of us have been told to sit tight and not do anything too impetuous until the initial
storm passes, some of Britain’s top executives have been – as the City likes to call it – filling their boots.
The CEOs of Britain's top 250 companies have spent £14.3 million buying shares in their own companies after the prices collapsed during the chaotic
days after the Brexit vote. According to some reports, ‘directors in companies such as Lloyds Bank, construction firm Berkeley Group, the Royal
Mail and Debenhams have bought up shares dumped on the market. A total of 33 directors in the top 100 companies spent £8.5 million over the past
Equally, the media has experienced some astonishing success that proves two things. First, that good can come out of bad. And, second, that when it
comes to seismic, life-changing events, the perspectives and analysis of dead-tree media are far more potent than those of social media.
Silicon Valley seems to take a sadistic pleasure in urging newspapers and journalists to retire early to their graves. Yet new figures suggest the
opposite. Instead of such myopic foolishness they should instead attempt to understand what the data is telling us.
First, to newspapers. Since the Brexit vote, The Times hassaid it a 100,000 copies, or 18%, on Saturday and The Guardiangained
70,000, or more than 20%. The Daily Mirrorhad a 40,000 copy uplift, making its Saturday paper the best-seller of the year. And industry
estimates suggest the Daily Mailadded as many as 90,000 with The Sungaining about 52,000.
According to Newsworks, the trade body for UK newspapers, total sales were up 724,000 across three days compared to average circulation. The average
uplift on Saturday was 7% and some titles saw increases of nearly 20% on both Saturday and Sunday. Rufus Olins, the chief executive of Newsworks,
said: "Readers have always turned to newspapers at the time of big, national events and continue to do so."
So not only did print coverage help to manipulate the campaign – particularly the right-wing press’s Brexit agenda – but it also became a focal point
for people. To understand, to learn, to share in the joy, upset and rancour. Partly, I’d suggest because of the quality of journalism on offer
and partly because people trust journalism that they buy. The transaction instils trust. If you’re paying for it, it must be good. Which is something
one must assume that advertisers have noticed – instead of moaning about Brexit, this might be a way for them to capitalise on it.
Equally interesting is what has happened to the Financial Times’s website in the past few days and weeks, proving that quality journalism is as potent
a force as shallow click-bait in attracting digital audiences.
During the day before Brexit, the FT’s publisher dropped its paywall for all news related to the referendum and naturally saw a traffic spike. Over
the weekend, the FT’s Brexit poll tracker was its most-popular-ever piece of journalism, drawing nearly 4 million pageviews.
Of course free is a wonderful selling tool but what’s interesting is that people didn’t just plunder the site’s content, they bought subscriptions.
In fact, according to Digiday, ‘the FT saw a 600 percent surge in digital subscriptions sales over the weekend (compared to the average weekend) since
the Brexit vote news broke, which equated to thousands of additional subscriptions sales.’
And the FT’s commercial department were quick to take advantage of the desire for content amid the turmoil. Its chief commercial officer Jon Slade
said: “We dialled up our marketing on a real-time basis. We were looking at buying patterns, opportunities in social, and spending our marketing
budgets in pretty aggressive ways in an attempt to try and dominate a story. We then made sure that didn’t conflict with the efforts of our audience
engagement team, so there was constant dialogue between audience engagement and editorial, and between marketing and acquisition.” said Slade.
These marketing teams sent out social media messages that helped to promote articles that were proving highly popular among the FT’s audience.
So free in this case actually made money by providing a ‘taste’ of what was on offer. Again, what really inspired people to take up subscriptions was
that they were hooked by quality journalism. At a time when the echo chambers of social media were spouting rehashed opinions, crass insults and
pathetic wailings, newspapers and their websites were demonstrating that good, well-written, intelligent stories make money.
I may not sport a beard, wear flip-flops to work or play ping-pong in my lunch hour, but that’s the kind of statistical evidence that even dead-tree
veterans like me consider to be elements of a pretty decent business plan.