The rising tide of red ink at long last washes over Fleet Street
▶ U.K. papers are getting pinched as print ad revenue weakens ▶ For Britain’s national dailies, “the house of cards is tumbling”
Britain’s daily press—with its saucy headlines and coverage that ranges from lurid exposés of politicians’ peccadilloes to sober analyses of their policies—has long weathered the digital onslaught that’s decimated the business elsewhere. Two decades into the web era, the U.K. supports at least 10 print papers with national reach.
Yet Fleet Street is finally feeling the pinch. Newspapers are cutting jobs and trying to shore up advertising and circulation. The Independent in March ceased publishing its print edition and adopted a digital-only strategy. The Telegraph is closing its office canteen. The Guardian is cutting 250 jobs as it aims to reduce costs by 20 percent. Even the Daily Mail, which has maintained a strong print readership while building the world’s biggest Englishlanguage news website, is warning of weakness in advertising. “I’ve had a dread of this happening,” says David Banks, a onetime editor of the Daily Mirror and a former managing editor at the New York Post. “The house of cards is tumbling.”
The U.K. newspaper market generates $8 billion a year in revenue, making it the fifth-largest in the world, after the U. S., Japan, Germany, and China. But just 62 percent of British adults read a newspaper at least once a week in 2015, down from 70 percent in 2011, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Print ad sales at U.K. papers fell to £1.7 billion ($2.5 billion) last year, from £4.2 billion in 2005, says mediabuying agency Zenithoptimedia. And web ads aren’t plugging the gap: Digital ad sales totaled £356 million in 2015, leaving a shortfall of more than £2 billion. “Everyone was waiting for the moment when digital ads were going to offset the drop in print,” says Alex Degroote, media analyst at Peel Hunt. “The tipping point didn’t come through, and it’s not going to.”
The Guardian invested heavily in digital operations under its former
editor, Alan Rusbridger. While the title ranks second among English-language news sites, with 39 million unique visitors in April, vs. the Daily Mail’s 50 million, according to researcher Comscore, its digital ad revenue hasn’t offset print declines. Guardian Media Group, which publishes the Guardian and the Sunday-only Observer, says it expects an operating loss of £53 million for the 12 months ended in March. David Pemsel, the group’s chief executive officer, says he’s aiming to break even within three years with a renewed focus on digital revenue. He’s looking for sources other than advertising, such as soliciting donations from digital readers; 28,000 have chipped in so far. “The last 12 months have been a genuine wake-up call for the industry,” he says.
Publishers have tried all manner of new ideas to keep readers from defecting. The Telegraph gives out free bottles of water with a purchase of the paper at Whsmith convenience stores. The Mirror’s owner in February launched New Day, a tabloid aimed at attracting women who’ve deserted newspapers. The paper featured an upbeat editorial line with stories about families, children, and relationships and largely skirted sports and crime coverage. The marketing slogan, “Life is short, live it well,” turned out to be prophetic. The paper closed after less than three months.
News Corp., which publishes the staid Times of London and the Sun, a tabloid stuffed with celebrity tittle-tattle and sports news, has had mixed results trying to get readers to pay for online content. The Times started charging in 2010 and today has more than 170,000 paid digital subscribers. The Sun dropped its paywall in 2015 after two years. To tap into Britons’ love of gambling and sports, it plans to add an online betting service following the introduction of Dream Team, a fantasy soccer game. “Instead of just thinking about the Sun as a newspaper, you think about it as a brand,” says David Dinsmore, chief operating officer of News U.K.
The Daily Mail has bucked the industry by minimizing print declines while attracting online readers with a steady diet of Kardashians, Kate Moss, and Cristiano Ronaldo, but it’s also getting hit. Shares of its owner, Daily Mail & General Trust, plunged in May when the company said print ad revenue fell 13 percent in the latest six months. “There is a perfect storm this summer,” says Tim Luckhurst, a journalism professor at the University of Kent.
The bottom line Britain’s dailies are finally feeling the squeeze from the rise of digital news outlets, years after papers elsewhere.