'WSJ' Europe Is A Bellwether Sign For Print

No part of any journalist who cut their teeth on newspapers when they were solely papers would find any joy in conveying the bad news on print, but here goes -- The Wall Street Journal pulling out of its print editions in Europe and Asia is a big sign. Print is truly struggling, and it's not just a specialist business paper that's feeling it. 

According to Press Gazette, although the WSJ was claiming a circulation of 58,000 per day, only 5,000 of these were subscriptions and newsstand sales. The rest were bulk giveaways. A "paid" newspaper was effectively being given away free to executives staying at the right hotel, flying the right class or sipping coffee in the best cafes. Apparently this was always the way for the title. 

It would be easy, then, to think that this is just the case of a paper that relied on giving itself away deciding enough is enough. And there's a very large element of truth in that. However, there's a clearer underlying issue. It used to be able to give itself away because print ad revenues were high, that is no longer the case.

If you take a look at the AA/Warc figures for which sectors are doing well and which aren't, it's pretty depressing reading for print. The least of the worst scenarios are the nationals, which last year made roughly a fifth of their ad money through digital, thanks to a 5% uplift which is forecast to double this year to a 10% increase. Happy days? Well, not exactly. Print ad revenue dropped nearly 10% last year, and there is another 7.5% drop for this year and then a 6.9% drop next year.

To put this into perspective -- and its worst position -- for every new pound a paper gets through digital, it loses ten in print. It gets even worse with regionals who have just lost 13% of print revenue last year and will lose another 10% this year at the same time as digital revenues are actually going down slightly. It's a similar story for magazines. 

I've been talking with national newspapers, regional groups and magazine publishers recently, and although they are putting a brave face on it, the one thing I felt was that those who are talking up the prospects of digital revenue might be missing a point. One regional group has doubled its revenue per thousand over the past couple of years, but I would suggest this is just partly filling some of the gap between print losses and digital gains -- it doesn't fully compensate. 

That's why the conversation with these groups generally turned to the events they run, which they are hoping will stand up and help plug the gap. All is not lost on digital revenues, of course, because a couple of major publishers are also pushing native advertising heavily. The Guardian is already the poster child for native, particularly sponsored hubs, and Trinity Mirror is talking up its data journalism unit that does a similar job. 

As for print, however, I just don't see a way back. The future is readers delving in and out of what titles have to offer, whether that will be through the title's home page or increasingly more likely, social discovery and aggregation. The game-changer here is going to be Facebook's aggregation service, which we'll see more of later in the year, potentially. Savvy publishers will use its offer to not take a cut of subscriptions as a green light to use it as a shop window for gaining new subscribers. Those that do not offer subscriptions will take its offer of allowing publishers to keep revenue from ads they sell themselves as a no-brainer for extra revenue and free distribution. 

There is a sad part to this, however. As non-subscription titles bid to make more money on digital, their intrusions on the screen will become ever more annoying, with more auto-play ads and large MPUs covering the page and ads dotted throughout an article every couple of lines. Browsing a paper online is becoming like trying to read an article in the middle of the classifieds sections, in some part of the web.

Which brings us to the point -- this is all brought about by print's slow demise. The WSJ closure in Europe is far from an isolated one-off. Consolidation and digital only titles has to be a trend we look out for. Can titles keep on losing ten pounds for every one new pound they make?

It doesn't sound sustainable, does it?

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