The Years Ahead For ... Newspapers

Steve Goodman examines some of the exciting new opportunities publishers, facing eroding newspaper sales, may pursue in the coming year.

If 2009 was the year of cuts and rationalisation, 2010 will be the year many businesses look to change. Change to introduce greater and new efficiencies and change to attract new sources of revenue.

That is not to say we won't see further cuts in the publishing sector, as newspapers consider the long-term viability of their very existence, if not individual sections of their portfolio.

The Sunday newspapers sector, for example, faces a questionable future. That market has probably been the hardest hit over the past 12 months, both in terms of advertising revenue and circulation. The Observer has announced the closure of some monthly themed supplements as well as reducing the size of its overall package, and it's likely other titles will follow suit.

The newspaper industry remains a formidable force among the media channels available to advertisers. But 2010 may be the year national press takes a giant leap forward. There are many ways that this may impact on the industry, making publishers more profitable and presenting new opportunities to advertisers and their agencies.

With newspapers sales gradually eroding, we can expect further investment into improving purchasing opportunities for potential readers. News International, for instance, has, within the M25 boundaries, created a direct to doorstep facility, enabling early home delivery at no additional cost.

Newspapers are becoming bolder in accepting radically different formats. Editors still tend to shy away from anything outside traditional advertising, but there seems to be little evidence that readers object to these different approaches, and there is a significant appetite from advertisers and agencies to invest in achieving standout.

Some papers have taken tentative steps in introducing alternatives to their inventory as prescribed on the flatplan. We have seen the introduction of front-page strips, "inverted N" shapes across a spread and even cover-wraps, but these tend to be exceptions.

I would not expect to see papers cluttered daily and throughout the issues with a myriad of radical shapes. However, the battle sales teams have with editorial to sell in new ideas needs to be addressed by publishers' commercial management if they are to encourage creativity, and hence increase levels of spend in their medium.

Furthermore, with product placement high on the agenda for TV programming, newspapers might at least consider a more flexible attitude to advertorials, which are generally restricted by both format and position.

It will come as no surprise to many that I do not miss this opportunity to mention the provision by publishers of weekly, if not daily, data. It seems incredible that in this age of immediate access to so much media information, newspapers still cling to the need to disguise their fluctuations in daily sales figures by allowing only the provision of monthly aggregated numbers. More transparency of data must be provided via the Audit Bureau of Circulations to keep up with developments in other media sectors.

While on the issue, the knee-jerk reaction against bulks should be readdressed. Bulks can be an invaluable tool to encourage trial, and with more insight as to exactly how, where and to whom these bulks are being distributed, agencies may be prepared to take more account of these figures when assessing the total value of a headline number. In some cases, a bulk copy may actually be as valuable as a paid-for copy, and as other free media so often has a clear value, more transparency with reference to bulks should facilitate more value being apportioned to that element of the circulation.

I also expect the development of new, more exciting partnerships, both between clients and publishers, but also media owners working hand-in-hand to offer clients more rounded solutions to achieving their objectives.

Certainly, the first place to start is for newspaper publishers to consider how best to marry up their own portfolio, and News Corporation's recent launch of Fusion, allowing bespoke opportunities for clients across the portfolios of News International and BSkyB, is a step in the right direction.

America appears to be further down the road on linking client promotions with developing a paid-for online content model and home delivery. A recent promotion by The New York Times may hint at what could be possible here over the next year. It tied up a deal with Samsung, giving its readers a $100 discount on a netbook computer if they subscribe to the online version of the paper, which is also available free to home-delivery subscribers.

Newspaper publishers' online platforms should facilitate a tremendous opportunity to create a true dialogue between the reader and the editor, but it should also help promote better engagement between the consumer and the advertiser in that environment. Agencies and sales departments have both geared up to handle this multi-platform approach, but it currently tends to be limited to special situations, with the emphasis on banners and buttons rather than content provision and interactive dialogue. Developments in research, such as the IPA's Touchpoints, should help fuel this.

Publishers are also reviewing the extent to which they might be able to generate other income from their web offerings, whether it be charging for content, or perhaps unique offers, micro-charging and/or subscription charging. Alternatively, publishers may look to club together to offer an "iTunes-like" portal enabling consumers to subscribe to elements of a range of publishers' content.

In fact, Hearst Corporation is launching Skiff this year, selling digital versions of a number of publications, to be viewed on different devices. News Corp is also investigating a similar opportunity, and contemplating launching its version of an e-reader.

Rupert Murdoch has made it clear he will charge consumers for access to his online content, and will remove free content from Google. In the meantime, Google is testing "Living Story", a tool that enables readers to track news stories over time.

It is also notable that Will Lewis, the editor-in-chief of The Telegraph, will now head up a digital operation for the paper. The issue is: why would people pay for what is free elsewhere? I believe the answer lies in the quality, depth and style of the journalism.

2010 will be the year that, emerging from the recession leaner and fitter than before, the newspaper market will have the foundations upon which we should witness some of the biggest changes since the last decade. However, the most important thing they need to do right now is decide exactly what they really want to be in the future.

- Steve Goodman is the managing director - print trading at Group M.