Newspapers in a digital Khyber Pass

So, how goes it at your digital frontier? Newspapers have each poured tens of millions into their attempts to reach digital nirvanah, but most are still stuck in a bloody Khyber Pass.

Two illustrations make the point. First, take a look at this graph from Alexa (an Amazon-owned site that measures web traffic):

Web traffic for the BBC and newspapers

Web traffic for the BBC and newspapers

What it shows is that the BBC is looked at by about 1.5% of all web users each day; it’s ranked at 46 of all websites and has as much reach as the rest here put together. The ‘rest’ is made up of four newspapers: the New York Times (0.9%; 90); the Guardian (0.3%; 345); Wall Street Journal; (0.3%; 386); and the Financial Times (0.2%; 909). The Telegraph is ranked 406; the Times 504; the Independent 1,633; and the Mail 414.

The next figure to note is ‘x4’. That’s what the FT estimated in December that the NY Times would have to multiply its present ad income by to get to the point where it could break even  without any income from print (ie it would have to quadruple its present number of visitors or have the same number of visitors and quadruple its ad rates).

How long would it take to do that? Let’s assume that the downturn lasts until the end of 2010; that real prices stay constant; and that, after that, online ad revenues grow by 10% a year.  It would take 6 years to more or less double income – and 15 years to quadruple it.

That’s a very long Kyhber Pass – and ignores the potential for hassle from the natives (the BBC, Google and the rest of the non-print media world).

Now, 15 years is too long for a plc to contemplate, especially a newspaper-based one that is seeing its daily sales figure (and hence ad revenue) reducing each year.

Hence the panic. In every issue, the Press Gazette and Guardian’s Media pages tell another tale of a paper cutting staff or selling assets:

  • ‘The parent company of the NYT and Boston Globe is looking to sell its share in [a] baseball team’;
  • ‘Redundancy fears at Standard’;
  • ‘Like most newspapers the FT faces cuts, but its union is determined to resist’;
  • ‘Sun freelance rates “lowest on Fleet Street”‘.

In fact, the reaction of all the papers has been to have another redesign (they’re more or less yearly now and an easy cop out because at least the shareholders can see you’ve done something) and attack costs. And in the process mess things up:

  • ‘Complaints have come in to the Times’ offices in their hundreds about the paper’s revamped Saturday edition’ (don’t believe the hype, the revamp was about cutting costs);
  • David Leigh [Guardian’s investigations editor]: Investigations becoming ‘impossible luxury’;
  • and did you notice how one minute the FT had a TV listings pages, then it didn’t and now it’s got one again?

The end result is poorer quality of news and worse value for money:

  • fewer news stories per page;
  • shorter stories (allows more space for ‘eye-catching’ graphics and designer ‘white space’);
  • boring pages – newspapers have never looked so alike;
  • fewer late editions;
  • more colour means pages have to go off to print earlier;
  • stories are less well edited and crafted.

Newspaper executives seem to think readers don’t notice such things. But it’s death by a thousand cuts in newsrooms across Britain. And readers are noticing. As a recent survey found:

‘Less than a fifth of British people say they trust newspapers, down from about 30 per cent last year and well below the global average.’

The way British newspapers are being run, none of them is going to last long enough to see the digital new world. They may be talking about quality but readers reckon they’re talking out of their Khyber Pass.

Newspaper profiles at

2 Responses to “Newspapers in a digital Khyber Pass”

  1. Andrew Says:

    thanks – great post 🙂

    “The end result is poorer quality of news and worse value for money” – so absolutely true. The constant cuts are simply reducing quality and putting more readers off. One of the big players has got to take a big leap, cut lots of their staff, and risk being the first.

  2. Newspapers in the digital Khyber pass | Magforum Says:

    […] in 2009, I wrote ‘Newspapers in a digital Khyber Pass‘ that set out the challenge for newspapers in moving to digital. Two weeks ago, I wrote about […]

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