Media: All about ... The print media model

Newspapers mull charging for access to online content.

The print media business model is broken, Maurice Levy, the chief executive and chairman of Publicis Groupe, says. Poppycock, Jonathan Newhouse, the international chairman of Conde Nast, responds.

We simplify and exaggerate (in the grand tradition of print media), of course. But there, in a nutshell, you have last week's World Magazine Congress held in London under the auspices of the International Federation of the Periodical Press (Fipp).

Clearly, the Fipp exists mainly to represent the interests of the magazine world; but the subjects the conference covered and the debates it embraced are more than a little pertinent for newspapers too.

Its timing proved immaculate. In recent weeks, the print medium has been more than unusually overshadowed by intimations of the apocalypse. And, equally unsettling, perhaps, by all sorts of revolutionary talk.

From a purely UK perspective, we've watched The Independent, widely believed to be on the block but unable to find a buyer, flirting with the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Times Newspapers has reported a £51.3 million loss for the year to June 2008 - when, let us not forget, the worst of the recession had yet to kick in. And in the US, we've seen The Boston Globe narrowly averting closure (for now) thanks to an 11th-hour deal with unions.

But there's been some radical fighting talk too - led by Rupert Murdoch. At last week's results announcement, the News Corp chairman gave the clearest indication yet that more of his newspapers will soon start charging for access to online content.

Oddly enough, this brings us back to Fipp once more - because in one of the more remarkable presentations, Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, revealed that she was broadly in agreement with her News Corp counterpart.

This was astonishing not because her flagship newspaper has a history of abjuring Murdoch and all his works, but because Guardian Newspapers has been a vocal proponent of the notion that online newspapers should be able to survive on ad revenue and ad revenue alone.

But these are unprecedented times - and unprecedented times have a habit of throwing together strange bedfellows.

1. In announcing News Corp's interim results - a 47 per cent year-on-year drop in operating income to $755 million in the first quarter - Murdoch said that the success of moves to charge for some content on The Wall Street Journal had convinced him that it was worth testing the pay model on another of the group's stronger titles - possibly The Sun or The Times. He acknowledged moves by Amazon to develop ways of selling newspaper content on its Kindle electronic reading device but said he disagreed with the Amazon business model and added that News Corp was looking to develop its own digital device strategy.

2. At the World Magazine Congress, McCall revealed that Guardian Media Group is already talking to Amazon about a Kindle agreement - but added that the strategy would be to charge for specialist sections (such as media and advertising) on the paper's website and for access to the business-to-business sites it acquired from Emap in December 2007.

3. Levy warned the print sector that it faced a profound structural crisis because it can't expect the upturn, when it comes, to restore its previous fortunes. The print medium's share of the advertising market would continue to shrink in 2011, he argued. "Let's face it," he concluded, "the traditional model for analogue media is broken."

4. In contrast, while Newhouse conceded the importance of digital platforms (and making the best use of them), he predicted that old-fashioned ink on paper would survive the downturn.

5. But perhaps the most defiant World Magazine Congress presentation came courtesy of the chairman and founder of Dennis Publishing, Felix Dennis. He evoked the spirit of Maxim magazine (everyone told him when he launched it that it would fail) to argue that the current climate would be seen in ten years' time as "one of the greatest financial opportunities in the history of our industry" - innovative publishers would, he predicted, take up the challenge to create groundbreaking publications.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- The print medium's somewhat bipolar behaviour in recent times is not exactly designed to impress its advertising customer base. Advertisers have grown weary of the tired old accusation (and this is a terribly lazy mantra that should have been well and truly buried in the dotcom bust) that advertisers "don't really get digital".

- Even last month, an eminent newspaper publisher was caught repeating it. So advertisers will watch with curious interest as magazine and (especially so) newspaper publishers begin wondering if they're the ones who "don't really get digital".

- Advertisers tend to want what they've always wanted - quality products delivering quality audiences. They'll hope that parts of the media sector don't lose sight of that business fundamental.

MEDIA OWNERS

- More conservative elements of the print market have always argued that even if the print medium is in terminal decline, it will (probably) continue to be a relatively slow decline - slow enough for many people to make considerable amounts of money from it for a considerable time to come. Newspapers and magazines are not about to disappear overnight. And where there are readers, there you shall also find advertisers.

- These conservative elements would have the medium withdraw to a fall-back position and retrench. It will be fascinating to see if the conservatives can wrest control of the agenda from the modernisers - who were in the ascendancy while times were relatively good.

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