Wishful thinking or a print and paper industry in denial

Ahead of this week's Ifra Expo, we're at the Berlin office of Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, learning that print newspapers are not in decline, but doing all right, even thriving.

It's a curious message, unsupported by the reality of the annual trade show which follows, now reduced to a couple of days from the three or four of the years past in which it bustled with the latest print technologies from vendors - many of which no longer even exist - across two or three halls.

You know and I know that things have changed; even Indian publishers have seen the writing on the wall - that advertising and audience are moving to digital - and while many print publishers may have succeeded in hiking subscription rates, doing so not a sustainable business model.

Vested interests in the print and paper industries would like you to believe otherwise however, and have others do likewise, and at the World Printers Forum, we're hearing from them. A report sponsored by papermaker UPM and magazine association FIPP found it was print's delivery of "what and when" people want in the form they wanted it was why print "continues to thrive", consultant Jon Watkins said.

And that word again: "Print is thriving - statistics support it," he emphasised, using the not unexpected statistic that 58 per cent of print subscribers claim to be "still orientated to print".

Watkins reported that "more than half" of Britons still read magazines, and cited the two million unique users of Bauer masthead Motorcycle News' website as proof of the 60,000-circulation print edition's central role, with spin-offs including events, e-commerce and an online insurance service.

Elsewhere a "meta-analysis of the advertising effect of print" by consulting company the Multi-Sense Institute - which had the support of partners including Heidelberg and Konica Minolta - looked at information from 300 international sources, Olaf Hartmann (by phone to the conference) frankly admits, "we can't say that we found a result".

The good news from his report - which is for sale - is that print is a very brain-friendly medium and the brain "loves to touch", learning Hartmann illustrates with a caricature of a man with very large hands, as well as other anatomical members which attract comment. Apparently people are 26 per cent more likely to donate to a charity when approached by someone with a rough-sided clipboard than a smooth one, and prospective car buyers - even millennials - needed some printed collateral to take home after a test drive.

Or at least in most cultures; in China, where print is associated with party newspapers and propaganda, it doesn't have quite the same cachet.

"Digital will never go away, but it has not changed the mighty analogue brain," Hartmann says. Data shows different views to those marketers believe, and these lead to "digital frenzy", but he admits multiple platforms will always perform better than one or two.

A reality check follows from newsprint market consultant Gary Thomas of EMGE, who says that despite aberrations which led to "panic buying everywhere in the world", newspapers are "still a market in decline".

Events in China, the US and India led to a shortage and the recommissioning of four per cent of newsprint capacity, but the world was tending towards oversupply again.

He says mail, office paper, magazines and NIMs are still in decline, while labels and books - of which he says people "got over the iPad and e-reader excitement and fell in love again" - are "not so bad".

The category known as 'printing and writing paper' is down 20 per cent to what it was 20 years ago, and newsprint is half its mid-2000s level, back that that of the late 1960s. He talks of some "dead cat bounce" after the global financial crisis, but forecasts more mill closures as demand and supply continue to decline.

Could he be wrong? Iris Chyi is in Berlin from the School of Journalism at the US University of Texas at Austin to debunk, she says, assumptions that print is dying and that the future is online, adding, "I hope you don't think I'm over-ambitious".

Her premise is an analysis of price information, "almost always missing", which tracks some of the huge increases publishers have made in what they charge for subscriptions; in the case of the LA Times, that's a factor of six in the cost of a home delivery sub. A "consistent pattern of raising prices" across the top 25 newspapers shows an increase of 2.53 times between 2008 and 2016.

And not even for the same product: size and the number of sections have been reduced, the number of delivery days cut, and the number of people contributing to papers production has reduced from 71,000 to 38,000.

Have readers have been willing to pay more for less, or is this willingness, "no more than another example of wishful thinking"?

Yet with figures hard to get, she concludes that pricing and circulation data indicate that digital subscriptions could account for less than three per cent of reader revenue. "I don't understand why the industry is so pro-digital and anti-print," she says. "The attachment to print newspapers is much stronger than anticipated."

Hopefully it's not wishful thinking that drives Styria Media Group to invest the 30 million Euros Christian Wilms says is going into upgrading its press facilities in Austria, Croatia and Slovenia including two new manroland Goss presses, or Funke Druck to set up an internet portal for digital print. At least Klemens Berktold admits the family company is using contractors rather than investing in the equipment needed to fulfill orders.

Other presentations included 3D printing of spare parts at Axel Springer - an arrangement which led delegates to question the impact on supplier relationships - a redesign and "restructuring" at Fuldauer Zeitung, and materials testing at Südeutscher Verlag Zeitungsdruck.

Delegates - of which there are about 70 including WAN-Ifra team members and trade press - are left with a lot to ponder.

The IfraExpo - now officially known as Berlin Publishing Days - opens at the city's Messe tomorrow and continues until Wednesday.

Peter Coleman

Pictured (from top):
Jon Watkins (left) with Manfred Werfel; Gary Thomson; Iris Chyi

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Members Opinions:
October 10, 2019 at 11:42am
Thriving newspapers is a curious message indeed. Sustaining perhaps, surviving most certainly, but thriving? I doubt it. It's vital that the industry adjusts to its new reality, to the returns that can be expected in terms of readership, influence and profitability. Only by identifying the particular utility of newspapers and yes, magazines, can the industry progress. Humility has never been a recognised virtue among publishers, but it may be required for an ongoing engagement with the industry.
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