Newspapers and prosperity
A view from Sue Unerman

Newspapers and prosperity

The business model for newspapers still troubles the industry. It remains a subject for debate, despite the fact that the audience that they delivered in the good old days is easily obtained in other media. Yet a desire to see recovery in the sector still permeates the ad industry and beyond into the world of finance.

It occupied a good deal of the afternoon of the recent Media & Telecoms 2014 Conference. Ashley Highfield, the chief executive of Johnston Press, talked about recovery in the regional newspaper field through mass localisation and allowing readers to contribute directly to publications' webpages on local events. Mike Darcey, the chief executive of News UK, argued that the "relentless focus" on print sales alone is "misleading and myopic", demanding an industry metric that aggregates and de-duplicates readership across all platforms – print, website, mobile and tablet. He said: "I want to explain how newspapers can do more than simply survive in the 21st century – they can thrive."

While there are attempts by several media owners to establish unilateral metrics across platforms, we seem to be a long way from a single metric that will satisfy all media planners, buyers and clients. I have spoken to advertisers of global importance recently who are appalled at the stultification of the industry in this respect.

At the ABC's Interaction 2014 conference in February, Rupert Howell, Trinity Mirror's group transformation director and chairman of Sunday brands, said journalists "can't just do words, you have to have video". Mark Wood, the chief executive of Future, added media owners need quality content to attract and retain audiences. Well, of course. Personally, I don't like to start the week without The Sunday Times' take on business and culture and, in fact, the relative resilience of its print circulation often passes unremarked when the chronic downward spirals of other titles' circulations are discussed.

Newspapers have a long heritage. They were invented in the 17th century by Johann Carolus, who proposed turning his weekly newsletters into print if his local council in Strasbourg would give him a monopoly. There was a business proposition built into the birth of the medium. A more robust one, in fact, than the one that emerged in the late 20th century, in which newspapers gave their product away online yet still hoped to sell print copies too.

Early modern Europeans were famous for their appetite for news. Most of it, however, they received for free from neighbours, family or in town squares. At the start, the idea that the public would pay for a sophisticated news service seemed unlikely. Early newspapers relied on the state to survive. Two factors changed their fortune. First, rising prosperity, which meant that people had money to spend on non-essential items. We can hope that the recovery in the economic climate can help the medium, but it would be significantly better if there was clear and transparent cross-platform – indeed, cross-media – data to feed our econometric models to prove the worth of the medium.

The second factor was social cachet. Andrew Pettegree comments that the 18th-century Somerset squire might not know why the Duke of Brunswick was gathering troops, or even where Brunswick was, but to be offered this information was to be admitted into the previously closed world of the politically informed. "For the status it conveyed, rather like wearing a sword or riding in a carriage, the cost of the subscription was money well spent," he said.

Traditional news brands seem to have lost some of this social aspiration cachet to other media – to media that facilitate drinking games and trolling. This is a big mistake for the brands and as problematic to the business as the research issue. The status can and must be reclaimed – with wit, with quality and relevant content, and with strategic investment in the brands.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom