Feature

International Business Media: International press gang

Global titles are faring better than their domestic broadsheet rivals, Charlie Devereux reveals.

These are testing times for print media. Publishers have always anticipated the publication of the latest circulation figures with bated breath, but in the past five years the arrival of new statistics has seen them hold that breath for a few seconds longer than usual, because audience figures have been falling month by month.

In the UK, all the national broadsheet papers have been haemorrhaging readers. All, that is, except the Financial Times, which in June saw its year-on-year circulation rise by 0.95 per cent.

The FT trend is reflected in the rest of the international or pan-regional titles, which are, unsurprisingly, keen to disassociate themselves from the troubles facing localised publications. "It's quite popular to talk about the demise of print, but in fact audiences are up for the international titles," Laurie Benson, the publishing director, EMEA of Time magazine, says. "Not only are they up, but they are attracting more of the right audiences. Circulation may be stable and not necessarily growing dramatically, but the audience of the key advertiser demographics is actually growing."

Her view is supported by recent research carried out by the World Press Group. The lobbying body for international print media originated a decade or so ago, but is only now, with a beefed-up membership of eight, really pushing its agenda through media agency training and a planned series of major research initiatives.

The first piece of research, which was published this year, aimed to quantify the strong position of its members, which include The Wall Street Journal, the FT, Newsweek, The Economist and National Geographic. The report, Driving Brand Enhancement, gives explanations for why international media is on more secure ground than local publications.

Andy Bush, the publishing director of the Fortune Group and the president of the WPG, says: "The reason we have the audience is because of our credibility. What we write is generally accepted as being the most credible, trusted editorial - considerably over local media, which tends to be biased and a bit myopic."

Although Bush is bound to promote his own sector, his opinion is shared by independent observers. From an advertiser's point of view, international media's reputation for content with a broader, less polemic, agenda holds great appeal, according to Wayne Philbert, a director of MediaCom. For luxury brands trying to reach an upscale demographic, the reliability of its content provides a safe, controversy-free platform alongside which to advertise, he argues. And, given the current state of flux in which the media generally finds itself, the stability of the international titles' readerships provides reliable access to their chosen demographic.

"Historically speaking, mass-market audiences and getting to as many people as possible could well have been the currency, but at the moment it isn't," Philbert says. "Because we know that audiences are fragmenting so heavily, we are asking: 'Where are the trusted sources? Where are the sorts of places our audience, which is extremely discerning, is going to come back to again and again?'"

However, the certainty that international media can continue to provide bias-free reporting is not shared by all. Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of The Wall Street Journal in July raised eyebrows among some observers. "He tries to pick like-minded editors, who, broadly, share his world view of things," Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Murdoch-owned The Sunday Times, told the BBC.

"But when there is something he feels strongly about or when some of his business interests are at stake, he leaves you in no doubt what he wants you to do." Rather than interfering, he is, Neil says, "an interventionist proprietor when he wants to be".

Aside from the emergence of the free newspaper market, the increasingly tenuous position in which national titles find themselves can be largely attributed to the migration of readers to the internet. The availability of broadband connections in many homes - 64 million people had broadband access across the European Union as of September 2006 - has seen people drift to online outlets where the choice on offer is far greater than that on a newsagent's shelf.

International titles have, perhaps, avoided the effects of this migration through the reading habits of their audiences. Primarily comprised of business leaders who spend a great deal of time travelling and so are more likely to buy print to read in airports, taxis and hotels, these audiences are also better read and predisposed to consume more than one publication as part of their media diets.

But the WPG is aware that future generations will increasingly prefer internet and mobile platforms over traditional print and, with that in mind, is rebranding itself this month as the World Media Group.

"It's a massive opportunity," Bush says of the multiplatform environment. "We are very excited about the next five years. We have a really high level of loyalty from our readership, but we're now developing these new, different audiences, online, and it's enormously exciting."

Statistics compiled by the European Media and Marketing Survey seem to dovetail with this view. They show that while print readership figures have remained relatively stable, they have increased by as much as 2 per cent when combined with the internet.

"Every one of us (in the WMG) has a strong digital play as well, and those are actually turning into incremental businesses, not businesses that are cannibalising us," Benson says.

Bush believes that the WMG's titles have consolidated their positions online through strong TV partnerships: Time and Fortune's online presence is hosted by CNN, while Newsweek has forged a link with MSNBC.

To date, where the web has proved to be most successful is at providing breaking news. But paradoxically, Benson says that the nature of their content will stand pan-regional titles in good stead as the internet develops. "We are poised to take advantage better than some because we're still doing what we always did, which is to provide thoughtful analysis. To provide context, whether it's on the internet or on the pages of a magazine, is more important than ever today in this chaotic cacophony of information," he says.

Tim Delaney, the chairman of Leagas Delaney, agrees: "The way these international titles are edited is essentially to this audience, which already has the information and wants it to be expanded, analysed and a prognosis to be developed, rather than (just reading) straightforward news.

"The more they write, the better it will get for them. The more they try to truncate and become like the web, the more they will lose their position."

The main question with regard to the internet revolution is whether media brands will be able to retain the same level of revenue from advertising online as they have in print. Currently, the balance still lies with print, Delaney says. He believes that the internet has to mature before advertisers are prepared to invest heavily in it.

"There's still a degree of superficiality about the web, but that won't last forever," he says. "It's a 'fast access, Google it, bin it' kind of thing, whereas newspapers and magazines are more contemplative and reflective.

"The value equation is very interesting. At the moment it seems tipped towards traditional. What I always say is that people are using traditional media for about 80 per cent of their budget, but their emotional time is 80 per cent on digital."

Philbert believes the future is sunny for international media and that the WMG is steering the right course by emphasising the brand loyalty to what he calls people's "desert island" titles. "They can't get into a debate about average issue readerships and how one publication is read by more (people) than another," he says. "What they can talk about is this affinity, the relationship they have, the dependence people have on this type of media."

The future may look bright, but it is still uncertain. The dominance of search engines still worries advertisers, which are unsure whether to invest their money in websites or on buying visibility on Google.

"International titles must not lose their nerve," Delaney says. "It may well be a phasing thing, where right now, in the middle of the revolution, they need to blitz it, tell everyone what they stand for and why they are useful. This will ensure that they are not over-run by the rabble."