Why newspaper brands cannot flourish on a starvation diet

Last week, in a series of lectures in Australia, Rupert Murdoch addressed himself to the future of the newspaper.

He noted "the complacency and condescension that festers at the heart of some newsrooms" and the "misguided cynics who are too busy writing their own obituary to be excited by the [internet] opportunity".

But he went on to assert his confidence in the future of the "news brand". See what happened there? It's not about paper, people; it's about trust, a reliable brand amid a million internet voices.

This is fair enough, but not all press brands are equal. What Murdoch is describing will turn out to be a polarisation with large national, and ultimately global, brands on one wing and specialist commentators, bloggers and networkers on the other.

The global brands will be able to afford the great commentators, demand the attention of news makers, and so carry information and analysis that will be rapidly shared around the world via RSS, through social and business networks, and by a click on the mobile handset.

Meanwhile, the specialists will hold their audience because of their authority on subjects outside mainstream interests.

The gap between the two is a chasm into which many of today's newspapers will fall, weakened by deprivation of their traditional three courses of cover price, classified and display revenues.
Most vulnerable is the regional press. Its defenders talk passionately of the special and historic role of the local newspaper in its community.

And yes, the closure of local papers will be a tragic loss to the towns and cities they've served for years. But recent financial announcements from this sector signal that the local newspaper business model is broken.

Some groups have moved decisively online, but even for these fast movers, there is no cover-price payable by the online audience.

And fish4jobs, the regionals' joint venture, has not prevented the classified revenues that are so crucial to local newspaper economies being swept off their table like so many grains of rice. Leaving a frugal meal of display advertising in a recession.

Murdoch is emphatic about the continuing vitality of the news brand: "It may not be thrown onto your front doorstep the way it is today. But the thud it makes as it lands will continue to echo around society and the world."

Let's hope so, but it takes some weight to make a thud - and that doesn't happen on a starvation diet.

Richard Eyre is chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau; richard.eyre@haymarket.com

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