Will 2021 be the year that heralds the death of the newspaper?

By Adam Taylor, Director of Media Relations, Cicero/AMO

A colleague asked me whether I thought 2021 could be the year that print newspapers die? It’s an obvious question in a year where freesheets like Metro, City AM and the Evening Standard have all struggled. Figures published in the Press Gazette in the summer showed the drop in circulation, much of this in direct response to the first lockdown.

Undoubtedly, there’s a reason that some people don’t buy physical news anymore and that’s because it’s largely free on our phones, tablets and laptops. Of course, news that goes to print at 11pm may largely be irrelevant by the time you’re having your breakfast, but broadly, why buy The Guardian, when I can read it free online?

You’ll be glad to know this isn’t a blog post about people paying for news. Though, if you are interested in that debate, the Reuters Institute at Oxford have some good data exploring the willingness of consumers to pay for news and comparing the UK to other geographies.

More so that I saw a tweet from the current business editor at the Sunday Telegraph, Chris Williams that highlighted the Telegraph’s decision to invest in its own journalism and cut ties with PA Media (formerly the Press Association).

This is an argument I’ve been thinking about for a while. For a client, if you get a quote or story in PA, then the world is your oyster. I remember getting a quote in PA in response to debt figures and it led to 250+ pieces of coverage. They were delighted, as were we. It was the first thing we did for them and it was a great way to begin the relationship.

For those who don’t know how it works, PA is a news wire. It sells its news to other news organisations. For example, it will have a journalist watch and write up a House of Commons Select Committee, which then becomes available for syndication for other publications. That’s really useful if a local newspaper doesn’t have a dedicated business, court or health correspondent, for example. They’re not alone, there are other generalist and specialist wires that provide news that we, the consumer ultimately read.

From a democratic point of view, I think it’s a good thing. I would rather journalists are scrutinising local councils and reporting wrongdoing than concerned about things they don’t have the time to look at.

The problem I have, which makes the Telegraph shift interesting, is that news becomes the same. As someone who grew up in a Daily Mail-reading household, I found it surprising that you can now read the same articles in other tabloids. That’s not to say that a report from a Government department wouldn’t get pick up across the board anyway – it would (and should, if it’s interesting) – but if all copy hangs on the back of an agency, then where’s the journalism? Why wouldn’t someone just read it on the Mail Online, Sun Online, Mirror Online or, indeed, the BBC?

News that is predictable is perhaps boring.

Which is why content and production is so important. People subscribe to morning emails from Politico or Red Box because they know they’ll read something insightful, entertaining and original (even if it brings together what others have written).

Economics does play an important part. You can’t fund The Sunday Times Insight team if no one is willing to pay for what they read.

I recognise that many publications say that if they earned their fair share of revenue from Facebook or Google, then they could fund more original journalism. Likewise, if there was a level playing field provided by the BBC licence fee.

However, my main point is that we shouldn’t expect print to curl up and die because everything goes digital.

Media outlets like the Financial Times may choose to go digital first and only because it makes economic sense and is ultimately a better product.

Publications like the Daily Mail, The Spectator and Good Housekeeping continue to have a terrific print product that are put together as just that: a print product. Of course, today’s performance should never be an insurance policy for the success of tomorrow.

There’s no suggestion that other publications will follow the Telegraph’s suit, but it does demonstrate that PRs shouldn’t rest on their laurels and take it as read that they will reap the harvest of today’s media.

Always look for new trends and new media, and by all means, suggest new ideas to journalists. Our old ideas will look weak if the publications we used to pitch to no longer exist.

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Adam Taylor

Director of Media Relations