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January 28, 2013

The branding of news

Picture the scene – the daily commute to work at a busy railway station:

"Can I help?""Medium Americano please, with an extra shot""Certainly sir, milk?""Just a splash please""Anything else for you sir?""I’ll have a newspaper please""Certainly sir – how would you like your news sir?"

The idea of having your daily news how you like it sounds crazy doesn’t it – information ranging from politics, sport, entertainment, scandal and even horoscopes is presented in the daily paper, and in most cases is simply a collection of facts. However, a quick look at the selection on offer reminds us that, like many things in our lives today, there is a choice to be made – but how do we choose?

Commuter or not, the paper you read says a lot about you, so for many it’s a choice between broadsheet or tabloid, with politics, education and even aspiration playing a further part in this choice. What about cost though?

If news is simply a collection of facts, why pay at all for a paper? Many commuters get the self-titled "World’s most popular free newspaper" the Metro, which is free and enjoys daily circulation of around 1.4 million copies (making it the third most popular UK daily newspaper behind the Sun and the Daily Mail). It is undoubtedly a creation of the modern-day commuter generation, as the time taken to read it probably matches the average commute to work. Not everyone likes the Metro, but if a free paper which reports facts is available, is it worth paying for a newspaper at all?

Subscription rates for national newspapers vary, but on average tend to start at around £200 ($315) a year. By contrast, another recent title, the i has seen its circulation double since it was introduced in 2011 to outsell both the Guardian and its big sister the Independent – annual subscriptions rates for this new quality tabloid are currently £45. (If you prefer your news to be either seen or heard, the BBC’s annual licence fee is currently £145.50 to give you some perspective).

So why do people still buy newspapers, spending more than they have to? It has to be something to do with the brand that the paper in question delivers – the quality of journalism, the insight shown by analysis and the points made by columnists are all tied to that paper’s brand, and that’s why people pay for it. You may wish to question whether the journalist always follows the story or vice versa, especially if print deadlines demand copy to be available regardless of the quality of the story, but that could simply be just another story.

Let’s remember though, that facts are simply facts, no matter who reports them: evidently, we value who tells us these facts and how they tell us: surely that is all about branding.

We cannot proceed any further without considering the impact that both technology and online news coverage is having on printed daily media. In the last 10 years, the average circulation of the top dozen or so national newspapers has fallen from nearly 14m copies to fewer than 9m. There is now serious competition for print media – via tablet or PC for example – and this is forcing people to consider not only whether they still wish to pay for their news but also how they wish to access it.

In response to these developments, most newspapers now have a digital edition, free to access online, supported by the revenues earned by the print version and some form of advertising.

However, the economics of maintaining a daily news title with a free digital edition are fast becoming unsustainable – German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau went bankrupt in 2012, while in the UK the Guardian has reported losses of £44m a year, so new business models have to be considered.

So far, only the FT, Times and Sunday Times have charged for their full online news service, placing themselves behind what is known as a pay-wall. While this generates some revenue, recent analysis has suggested that it is not compensating for the resultant drop in print revenues, so this business model may not exist in its current state for too much longer.

The Times pay-wall may just be a victim of pricing however, as the market struggles to adapt. Ever the innovator, publisher News International is attempting to transform both the Times and Sunday Times into a seven day title, like it has with the Sun, but historical working arrangements agreed with the Thatcher government to keep both titles separate still lie in its way.

Another alternative may be to cease print versions of daily newspapers altogether – the Guardian has discussed this as a way of securing its future in the wake of developments in the US, where news magazine Newsweek went solely online from January 2013 in an attempt to return its publisher to profitability.

We are undeniably reaching a tipping point for print media but so far we have only talked about the supply issues that publishers face. Maybe the current business model needs to consider a more radical user-led approach. Facebook sustained global revenues of nearly $4bn in 2011, primarily from advertising on a user platform of 900m users – whether they are all real or not, that’s annual revenue per user of only $4, which many suggest is under-utilisation of the Facebook brand. However, it is still less than a tenth of what the i charges for an annual subscription, and the user doesn’t even pay for it. Perhaps print and social media need to friend each other?

Considering the demand for print media has got to be where the future lies – news publishers need to understand what users want, how they want it and what they are prepared to pay for it.

Getting hold of that information really would be a scoop.

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