Rivers run again: Nine's Stevens tells how print plot was lost and found

Distance lends enchantment to the view, and there's a tendency for speakers to be more relaxed when they're half a world from home.

So it was when director of print mastheads at Australia's Nine Publishing Michael Stevens took Indian delegates through a condensed history of the historic business, blaming past management for letting print slip in their obsession with digital.

That's prior to Nine's ownership, he points out.

Stevens has a long history with the former Fairfax Media, much of it in transformation roles, and returned to Fairfax from its New Zealand subsidiary, in 2012. "Striving towards a digital future, (they) had let print slip from the critical position it held," he told WAN-Ifra's India 2020 Printing Summit.

But he says that while print revenues had fallen, "the fact was and remains that print is still profitable for us."

Letting staff and clients know this was "a game-changer in how we were seen in the market", as well as in how staff perceived print.

Earlier, he'd recalled the glory days of only a couple of decades before when what Rupert Murdoch had called "the rivers of gold" had led to Fairfax producing what on Saturdays would be two "very, very, very" profitable 200-page broadsheets, generating enough wealth to own its own aircraft.

After yet another round of cuts and changes, print is now profitable again: "Not only profitable, but is delivering most of the revenue," Stevens said.

He makes a familiar point, that print should be the "runway on which our digital business would be afforded time to launch".

He says that at its core, Nine is a content company, the group investing "more than $1 billion" yearly in local journalism and content. He doesn't elaborate, but says that philosophy has driven perhaps the most fundamental change in the publisher's 186 years, disconnecting print mastheads The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review, from printing and distribution.

The arrangement, which saw Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane print centres shut, and production handled by long-standing rival News Corp, not only turns print and distribution from fixed to variable cost. With subscription growth, more than half of the revenue from the newspaper mastheads is now derived from readers.

And as it turns out, it's a move which has served it well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It wasn't always a positive story," says Stevens, admitting to ongoing challenges.

He says there was "terminal decline" only three years before, with thousands of jobs shed and increasing talk - especially in the columns of rival newspapers - of the flagship print editions closing, at least on weekdays. "Less than 20 years after the record-breaking issues and boom times, it had all come very quickly," he said.

As GXpress readers will know, with dramatic reductions in advertising revenue, Fairfax had started making changes to get print costs under control, closing its large Chullora and Tullamarine print centres before the print-sharing deal with News, and moving production to regional sites.

What Stevens calls "the country's most significant media merger" took place at the end of 2018, by which time Fairfax had already signed with News to take over its Brisbane and Sydney printing. (Melbourne, in a deal agreed since, will follow to News early next year, but the sale of Fairfax's remaining printing to ACM with its regional publishing business, had the effect of divesting it.)

Stevens tells how, "after receiving a mandate, we quickly made significant structural changes". Another $100 million a year was cut from the annual cost base - on top of recent earlier savings of nearly $500 million a year - requiring decisions which he says were tough, "but frankly, all necessary".

A new operating model saw the continuing growth of digital, while "a more disciplined approach" was taken to print. Whatever the drivers or timeline, the result has been, as Stevens says, to place the business on a truly variable cost base.

"That's a really critical thing, and has allowed us to focus on who we are as a business. We are a publisher; we don't want to be printer and carry the fixed costs of industrial metal."

Separate newsrooms have been maintained for the two capital-city mastheads and the Financial Review, and post-merger there are also additional and separate newsrooms for the TV company's Nine.com.au, the broadcast business, and specialist properties. "Each have their own audience and tone," he says.

Every other business was centralised and transformed.

While focussing its newsrooms on quality, the new owners have also emphasised metrics and subscriptions, "because our future depended on our having a direct relationship with our readers".

Stevens says the product suite has been rebuilt to drive habitual engagement and increase time spent by readers and reach revenue per user, and activities targeted towards increased subscriber acquisition and growth.

On the back of increased confidence, Nine had also been tightening its paywall, until the pandemic - following devastating bushfires - prompted some relaxation to allow people to access COVID-19 news, but drove subscriptions in the process, some weeks acquiring numbers that would typically have taken six months.

"Importantly," he says, "we reinvigorated the client advertising spend in print by restructuring sales around industry verticals, investing in key client relationships, and improving the effectiveness of print."

There had, he says, been several years where print had been undersold.

"Most importantly in regards to print, we changed the conversation."

Stevens says the result has been "the best business outcomes since the 'rivers of gold' left the building." Figures to the end of FY2019 - the last not impacted by the pandemic, and the first of Nine's ownership - show "all revenue lines in growth", and a year-on-year increase in earnings of 74 per cent.

"As I understand it, this is a unique story for traditional media in the western world," he says.

Even with the pandemic having "a material impact on print advertising and retail sales", the business still expects to finish year in "a very strong position".

He says Nine's mastheads have "continued to set the national agenda, and lead positive change in our communities", noting Age stories which resulted in the sacking of one government minister and the resignations of two others.

"Importantly throughout, our print mastheads have remained profitable."

While COVID-19 affected print retail and advertising revenue, the changes enabled a quick response, remaining profitable and avoiding "the mass lay-offs and pay cuts which have affected every other media company".

In particular, he says digital advertising revenue has been stable, subscriptions have surged, and the variable print and distribution model has allowed the business to rapidly take out further costs.

"We had started to think about a world where readers alone could fund our printed newspapers - unimaginable only a few years ago, when our business had traditionally been 80 per cent advertiser-funded - and that, with some product changes, a model could exist that saw advertising the cream rather than the core.

"And that would sustain print for many years to come."

He says the Herald and The Age are now very close to being sustained by reader revenue alone on five of the seven days they publish.

"The year has been confronted with a fight for our own survival, but we no longer struggle to make decisions and take actions."

During the pandemic, they chose to focus print on protecting the core products: the three dailies, but within that, the news pages, cutting back sections and pages of non-news sections. "That focussed us on where the money came from and what readers will pay for, in our case for pages and sections that carry unique, trusted and independent news."

Stevens also believes that proposed Australian legislation intended to make Google and Facebook pay for news used on their sites may also add to publishers' bottom lines.

It was a fascinating dissertation on a much-discussed topic. The shame is that the programme presented it to the technical audience of the WPF Printing Conference; delegates to the Indian Media Leaders eSummit - who will face similar problems - could have learned much from it.

• Stevens quotes FTI Consultants' Ken Harding on the impact of COVID-19: that newspapers can't rely on advertising; that the newspaper business is going to be consumer-led with reader-revenue the key; that the pandemic has "significantly accelerated" the transition to digital for newspapers, cutting out two years' revenues; that they should focus internal sales efforts only on key accounts, and on taking action to own and direct the relationship with readers.

Peter Coleman

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