Journalism’s digital revolution is gaining speed

In March this year, The Independent was in its thirtieth year and facing a difficult decision in view of continued tough trading conditions. In this, it was not alone; whilst in 2014, 41% of the population still read a printed newspaper to keep informed, in 2015 this had fallen to 31% with the trend set to continue. As revenues from print sales and advertising have dwindled across the industry, 300 local papers have ceased to print in the last ten years. In the case of The Independent, management responded by taking the decision to commit solely to a digital platform.

What do The Independent’s experiences reveal about the changing face of journalism?

The Independent now has twice as many subscribers to its app as before the publication’s move to a digital-only offering, reinforcing the importance of new formats of consumption such as smartphones and tablets. The digital focus also extends to its international reach. Instead of investing in paper copies abroad as some of its competitors have done (it claims needlessly), The Independent has focused on growing its US presence in the digital sphere, scrapping its paywall for non-UK readers in order to undertake an advertising-led push. Validating this approach, it was the only UK publisher to make the top 10 socially engaged publishers commenting on the US election (according to social analytics firm, Newswhip), helping to raise its profile in the world’s biggest advertising market.

Is social media the enemy in the fight for readers?

The average UK adult spends only 15 minutes a day reading a newspaper but they spend almost twice that time on Facebook streams and other social media. Just one of the reasons why Facebook and Google together now account for 75% of new online advertising spending globally. However, that does not mean that social media is necessarily the enemy for newspapers. Indeed, social media is becoming an ever more important source of readers for national newspapers’ digital offering. If newspaper articles are shared on social media effectively, it can actually be a useful tool to drive readers to those titles’ websites. This necessitates new areas of expertise, for instance, video is important in engaging new digital audiences but the traditional rules of journalism still apply: the story remains paramount whatever the channel.

Digital: not just how but who newspapers reach…

A seismic change for newspapers in building a digital offering has been in their ability to employ analytics in journalism. Via a digital platform, journalists can learn a lot more about their audiences including which articles appeal more to them. This means newspapers are able to tailor content precisely to their current (or target) readership. Each member of any editorial floor, in fact, can find out exactly how popular their individual articles are and track such data to inform their journalism. This is a world away from the six month sales figures which traditionally informed a newspaper’s readership statistics. Furthermore, online journalists can be encouraged to experiment more in new formats and discussion areas than their printed counterparts as they have instant feedback on how well it has been received. As The Independent’s Zack Leonard (MD of Digital) and Christian Broughton (Editor) declared at a recent Gorkana briefing, “we don’t let data rule our lives but it does inform everything we do”. By using analytics, news outlets are therefore able to strengthen readership engagement which in turn should support revenue streams, whether advertising- or content-based.

Digital strategies continue to evolve in the hunt for revenue

Most national newspapers are investing heavily in their digital platforms but others are yet to follow The Independent’s lead and cease printing entirely. The Financial Times, for example, has seen its investment in digital paying off: on 1 December 2016, it reported that it now earns more revenues from digital than print, supporting its claim to be the first mainstream UK newspaper which is a truly “digital content business”. Notably, the paper also now earns more revenue from content than advertising, reflecting its decision to address the digital revolution in journalism by adopting a digital paywall. Meanwhile The Daily Telegraph launched its own Premium Content service in November following a strategic review, adopting a halfway house which sees it charge for exclusive “curated” content but providing a significant level of free content which can also be mined and navigated through Facebook and Google.

So is digital-only the future for newspapers?

Journalists are operating in an increasingly digital world. The challenge is to use tools such as analytics to stay ahead of the changes in their audience’s habits in an increasingly fast-moving digital landscape. Time will tell which of the various approaches to the issues faced by our newspapers will succeed. It seems unlikely that national print journalism will be extinguished totally, at least in the short-term, but it is clear to see which way the direction of traffic is headed – and that it is accelerating – towards a ‘digital-first’ approach.