Ian Burrell: What's next for Fleet Street? The brave new world of 'newsbrands'
Today is a momentous day for the British national press. It is the official end of the "newspaper" industry and the beginning of a whole new economic sector: the "newsbrands" business.
This transition will be recognised by all but one of the national press companies today as their trade organisation, the Newspaper Marketing Agency (NMA), changes its title to Newsworks. The bold repositioning is an attempt to remind the public (and particularly the advertising industry) that the national press provides news on a variety of platforms and not just in print. An accompanying advertising campaign will show a dog with a digital tablet in its mouth, instead of the morning paper.
Newsworks' key message is that the UK newsbrands (the businesses once known as Fleet Street) are not in decline but are growing their collective audience – from 22.6 million in 2007 to 24.4 million by the start of this year. The rising number of readers on digital devices, from smartphones to tablets, is comfortably outstripping the decline in print readership, which has fallen by 5 per cent in the past five years, somewhat less than many people predicted.
Since at least 1702, when Edward Mallet set up the Daily Courant "against the ditch at Fleet Bridge" and started London's first daily, the Fourth Estate has seen itself as a print product. Even now Newsworks, in a historic pamphlet published today called From newspapers to newsbrands, stresses that the paper format remains, for now, the most important one.
The Newsworks strategy has been put together by Rufus Olins, who arrived as chief executive of the NMA earlier this year. "We as an industry have gone through more changes in the past eight years since the NMA was founded than we had in the past 200. We have essentially moved from a business that was about ink and paper into a multi-platform industry," he says.
The new title of the organisation is a "symbolic change" and an attempt to emphasise the continued value and relevance of the national press. "I want to remind people that it's an industry that really works," says Olins. "It works for readers, for advertisers and also for society. This is an industry that calls people to account – big business and senior politicians – and to some degree you can judge a society by the state of its newspaper industry."
Olins' task is far from simple. In trumpeting the values of the press, he not only has to contend with the ongoing negative noise around the Leveson Inquiry (much of it covered by the Fleet Street brands themselves) but a prevailing cynicism in many of the media agencies that decide where to spend the advertising budgets of the big clients. In such circles there is a fear of being seen as a dinosaur by speaking up for brands which are still so aligned with analogue media. And in creative advertising circles some of the young talent is averse to working in the old-school medium of print.
During the first 60 days of his tenure he visited 60 key advertising figures to gauge their views of the press. One of them simply responded: "The future's digital, what was the question again?" Olins is anxious to show that such views are far too narrow. "What's happened is that it has become fashionable to be scathing about the newspaper industry," he says. "But what has been lost sometimes is the fact that the newspaper industry is driving so much of the innovation in the new media."
Most leading advertising figures expressed "a huge amount of goodwill" for the news industry. Newsworks has printed in its pamphlets the views of key players such as Phil Georgiadis, chairman of Walker Media, who says: "They set the media agenda. They would still dominate a top 20 of UK media brands", and Daren Rubins, chief executive of PHD, who says: "Newsbrands provide a window into people's beliefs, observations, opinions and judgements." Newsworks boasts that 96 of the UK's top 100 advertisers still use newsbrands.
During the economic and technological turbulence of the past decade, the claims by newspaper stalwarts that there will always be a demand for print have become harder to digest as the quality of other formats has improved.
But Olins' attempts to redefine the argument and place the old Fleet Street brands back at the centre of the new media world, as innovators as well as trusted old friends, is helped by his diverse background. He has seen the news business from many perspectives. He began his career at the Hampstead & Highgate Express, covered business for The Sunday Times and edited Management Today before switching to the commercial side as a board member at publishers Haymarket. More recently, he has been chief executive of the World Advertising Research Centre, where he learned the importance of data in showing the power of a medium.
Olins says his famously competitive members, who have been clawing at each other like never before during the phone-hacking scandal, have never been so aligned (although Richard Desmond's Express Newspapers is typically outside of the tent). They will need that unity to emerge from what are still parlous times for the journalism business.
"The main players have recognised that they need to work together," says Olins. "They are all behind the changes and, despite the fact they have different revenue recipes, they are all on a journey from analogue to digital and recognise that. Over the next weeks and months you will see them collaborating together on a series of initiatives." Let's hope it works.
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