'Telegraph' Results Beg The Question: How Long Does Print Have Left?

If you want evidence that those of us who can only see limited hope for printed journalism are not just doom mongers, look no further than the case of the Daily Telegraph.

It published results yesterday in which subscription revenue was up 10%, thanks to soaring digital subscriptions of 27%. It now has 5m registered users, with 400,000 subscribing to its premium-level print and digital subscription package.

This would normally be great news. However, there was a "but." At the same time, profits were down 93% from more than GBP14m a year ago to just under a million pounds.

The paper believes it will add another 100,000 subscribers next year to help alleviate its financial plight. 

Let us just take a step back, though. The thing the paper is promising more of -- subscribers -- leapt by more than a quarter already last year and still the paper's profits took a nosedive.

Talk of terrible conditions for print is absolutely right, but talk of offsetting this by adding more subscriptions -- which didn't make any impact on profits almost disappearing last year -- just doesn't add up. I mean, literally, the sums just don't add up, do they?

This column has sometimes been considered a little harsh and too down on print but let me be clear -- there is nobody who wishes more that this were not happening to newspapers and magazines. Any journalist you read who is from Gen X or older will have cut their teeth on printed news and articles.

It is a very sad state of affairs, but that doesn't mean it is not happening. Like in cricket, when they say you must play the ball you were bowled and not the one you wished for, sticking our collective heads in the sand isn't an option. 

The general rule of thumb i have been living by is that when the figures are examined, for every new pound that comes into publishing through digital advertising, around a fiver is lost on print. That is clearly unsustainable, and at some stage something has to give.

We've already seen an early sign of this with The Telegraph dropping its traditional offer of a free newspaper for anyone buying a bottle of water at WH Smith.

You may find yourself inclined to wonder how a valued newspaper could be given away free with a bottle of water in the first place. However, stopping the deal to focus on driving subscriptions rather than giveaways shows the direction of travel. 

Digital subscriptions and advertising are clearly the way forward, but the question remains -- how long will newspaper groups allow their digital success to be counteracted by the huge cost of printing newspapers in which advertising revenues are declining?

We already have the example of The Independent ceasing a printed edition, and one can imagine it can only be a matter of time before a bigger daily newspaper follows suit or raises the purchase price to a point to counteract the losses incurred by print and accept a massive cut in readership figures to the point where print is not worth it anymore.

Either way, print faces severe challenges if so many papers stick to it.

The Independent was first -- but I very much doubt it will be the last. 

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