Newspapers need to get a handle on the internet threat

At a conference last week, the great and the good of the print media industry gathered to discuss the future. David Nicholson joined them, and found that the digital age has got executives running scared
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The Independent Online

A trio of heavyweight print executives, assembled to address the Judge Business School Media and Business conference in Cambridge at the end of last week, had starkly different opinions.

Most alarmist and gloomy was Andrew Gowers, until recently editor-in-chief of the Financial Times, who compared print to vinyl records. "Ink on dead trees," he called it, with the entire industry facing a "wrenching change", unlike any previous upheaval. "The digital revolution takes in all income streams," he said, dismissing new formats and DVD giveaways as "sticking plasters" on the dying patient.

In the US, households apparently spend 30 per cent of their media time online, whereas advertisers are spending only 8 per cent of their budgets there. Dollars are going to migrate, along with eyeballs, Gowers predicts. Classified ads are just one element: property and job adverts are going "helter-skelter" online, he says. This means that hundreds of millions of pounds, traditionally spent on print, are "going to go down the gurgler". Or down the Googler, perhaps.

Google, of course, presents an altogether more frightening threat than any mere alternative ad sales site, as it can divorce advert searches from any kind of journalistic content, making the print "bundle" of editorial in an advertising context redundant.

The glowering Gowers ended with the reflection that online journalism doesn't even seem to pay very well.

Turning to The Guardian's chief executive Carolyn McCall, the Judge School's perky moderator Noreena Hertz (author of Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, among other works) invited her to "hedge" the position.

McCall began with a discreet commercial for The Guardian's online presence, citing its many million users, but then confided that she scares the wits out of her advert sales teams with the threat of what she calls the "alligator jaws" of declining classified sales and circulation threats from the multitude of competing offerings.

"There is such a large institutional cost around print that, if you let it happen, even those making good profits will soon go into double digit loss," she said. Organisations like the NHS, once among The Guardian's biggest advertisers, have become its competition through starting their own job advert sites. Those who provide editorial for free, such as the BBC and its ilk, are also a danger.

McCall's response is to look at other commercial opportunities, such as conferences and exhibitions, not simply to protect print but to use good journalism to build a multimedia brand. She believes that, in 10 years' time, The Guardian will still be delivering quality journalism, but through audiovisual media, the internet, "and any other media".

McCall clearly sees The Guardian as a brand to launch a thousand spin-offs (the highly profitable AutoTrader being just one example; the Guardian Media Group has a 100 per cent stake in the magazine's owner Trader Media). "It's worrying but very exciting," said the unflappable McCall. She was even able to ponder the fact that the internet's "traditional" models, such as Yahoo and Google, are already mutating into new shapes in response to morphing customer demand.

Last of the three onto the stage was Independent News & Media's chief executive Ivan Fallon. Fallon played the elder statesman, remembering how he had forecast the death of the tobacco industry several decades ago, and how the doom-mongers had predicted that radio, then colour TV, would be the death of newspapers. "Each time, papers have changed and adapted," he said.

Reeling out a string of mind-bogglingly large figures, Fallon argued that the industry worldwide is in robust health. India, China, Australia, South Africa - each of these markets are booming for the print industry. An investment of $25m (£14m) in a 25 per cent stake in an Indian newspaper last summer is already worth $100m, he said, with advertising revenues jumping by 25 per cent a year.

Far from sitting around contemplating their navels, Fallon argued that print executives have studied the new models with great care and have acted cautiously but wisely. Much as he admires "Carolyn's wonderful site" at The Guardian, he pointed out that it, along with the majority of online versions of print publications, "is still not monetised". And while this is "the most challenging time for the last 200 years" in the print business, margins in general are high enough (often 30 per cent or more) to be squeezed in the medium term, while in the longer term "we can beat 'em and join 'em", either by creating new sites or adopting new technologies, he thinks.

Certainly, the financial markets seem not to share the more pessimistic forecasts, still putting high premiums on print publishing businesses, presumably figuring that whatever shifts in technology, distribution and content come along, the incumbents are able to adapt and exploit new opportunities. As for print itself, why would Rupert Murdoch be investing a rumoured £600m in new presses if the world's biggest media tycoon thought it was a dying industry?

For the 50 or so media types, business leaders and academics listening in this "agora", as the organiser of the event, Christos Pitelis, put it, there was a general sense of things being left unsaid. Barely a soul was under 40, and you felt that the sons and daughters of these captains of industry could very soon have disabused them of any complacency. "Something like Apple's TouchPad could change everything," said arch blogger Bill Thompson afterwards.

The patient's life still hangs in the balance.