Keep making 'em pay, even beyond the grave

Beyond the need to make digital audiences pay, print publishers have discovered that dwindling but discerning print readers can be slugged for their preference.

Online, consultant Juan Senor had a neat line at the World News Media Congress I must have missed when he did a longer version of the presentation in Singapore last month: "Come for the journalism, stay for the cookie."

Ignore the fact that he was giving print copies of his 2019 report away free, while he tells that Hearst is to set the online price for its Albany (NY) Times-Union according to readers' preferences, and take in the £4 (about A$7.25) copies of FT Weekend on display in the lobby. Also being given away, as it happened.

We're in a session to extol the virtues of print, following production of a review of WAN-Ifra's Print Innovation Awards winners, and the association's Sabine Sirach has ideas from the (free) book to share.

Enter Phillip Crawley - who, with a voice which sounded as if it had been honed on expensive spirits, reminded me for some reason of Aussie Paul Hogan (alias Crocodile Dundee) - with the message that "print is profitable". There's the picture of the Globe & Mail's new Toronto building, to emphasise the chief executive's point.

Though it was not always that way: Five years ago, the national daily was losing $25 million a year, and Crawley points to changes which have put it on the road to margins of 25 per cent. Narrower pages, fewer collect-printed sections and a renegotiation of the contract with Transcontinental, which covers production at four centres, among them. (Appointed in 1999, he doesn't say what kept him.)

And pricing: The cost of a print edition has been upped 40 per cent in five years (compared to 26 per cent for digital) if you can get a copy following withdrawal from some unprofitable areas. Print advertising is also "still flying", not least as a result of a focus on attracting "the right business"... which does not apparently include the local auto dealer.

One great new source of revenue has come from death notices, which can now extend over six of the paper's broadsheet pages when the weather is bad, "which is about five months of the year," Crawley admits. The Globe & Mail outsources sales and page production, and took $3.1 million on the category last year.

"It's where Canada comes to die," he jokes, comparing his Thomson family-controlled company's position with that of regional newspapers in "terrible trouble" and the "scary results" of two large groups.

Not that the focus of the Globe & Mail is by any means entirely in print; Globe Labs director Gordon Edall is in a later session to tell how he "talked my way out of a job in editorial" to develop what he called the "crowbar of goodwill" which allowed potential innovators to "do what the knew they needed to do", and listen to their frustrations and ideas. "Innovation is everyone's job," he said.

The publisher comes up with the funding - perhaps $1000, perhaps $250k - but makes heavy demands of innovators, who must bring a team physically into the lab, and keep asking, "are we winning yet".

Seems maybe they are.

Peter Coleman

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