'Preach the Reach' -- It's the Only Way

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

'Preach the Reach' -- It's the Only Way


Byline: Roy Greenslade

FIVE years ago this month I gave a speech to regional newspaper executives in which I urged them to "preach the reach". In other words, given the range of platforms that we now use to deliver news, I argued that it was necessary to show how audiences, though diminishing for printed publications, were increasing in the digital arena.

Well, the technological revolution has moved apace since 2006, but finding a way for newspapers to illustrate their new screen-based readerships has taken somewhat longer.

It was not until last month that the official recorder of newspaper sales, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), finally announced that it would, in future, be unifying the figures for print buyers and digital users.

The first example, covering the first six months of this year, will emerge in August. Magazines will also benefit from what ABC calls, to use its jargon, a "cross-platform certificate".

These are welcome developments that have been delayed for too long. They arrive against a background of depressingly familiar circulation figures that show a steady erosion of enthusiasm for the printed word.

The most recent sales statistics for national, regional and local papers feature a profusion of minus signs.

There are exceptions. A couple of regional dailies in Norwich defied the downward trend, as did a handful of local weeklies.

The free Metro remains popular in Britain's urban centres. The Evening Standard continues to go from strength to strength with its free distribution across London. And the 20p i, a sister paper of The Independent (and stablemate of this newspaper), secured a creditable 175,000 sale last month, opening up the possibility of securing a new audience for print.

These bright hopes for print's continuing hold on people's attention are in stark contrast to the decline of so many titles, with some doing very poorly indeed.

The Times, for example, is enduring one of its worst sales periods for many a year, certainly since its owner, Rupert Murdoch, boosted its circulation by launching a price war in 1993. Last month, the paper sold 11.7% fewer copies than in February 2010, a fall greater than that of its major rivals.

That would not matter so much if it was enjoying an upsurge of online users. Instead, on admittedly sketchy evidence because it has not released any sensible figures for subscribers to its website, it has had a smallish net audience ever since it erected its paywall.

Murdoch's decision to coax people into paying for access to online editorial content has been followed by several publishers in the United States, and the New York Times is on the verge of doing something similar.

These moves need to be seen in the context of a fascinating new report by America's Pew Research Centre, which carries out an annual survey into the state of the US news media.

It has discovered that over the course of 2010, the internet trailed only television as the population's favoured news provider. In other words, more people said they got their news from the web than a physical newspaper, and that is an historical first. The trend line shows that the net is catching up on TV too.

The report also predicts that 2010 will be the year in which online advertising revenue surpassed that for the printed press, though the final tally is not expected for a month or so.

Sadly for newspaper publishers, the largest share of online ad revenue is not coming their way. …

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