Last week saw the announcement that the first (of many?) long-standing national broadsheet, The Independent, is to cease its print-run in March 2016 and will be converted into a purely online format.
The speculation following this announcement raised questions as to what was the driving force behind this some-what radical decision. With the parent company, Johnstons Press, having debts of circa £200 million, one could be forgiven for assuming that this decision is purely financial. Along with the vast savings generated by removing print costs, staff numbers are also reportedly being reduced, from 150 to 20-40 positions moving forward. So financial sense it does indeed make.
The reduction of staff opens up the possibility of traditionally high-quality journalism being diminished in this move. The Independent’s own Brian Cathcart wrote an insightful, albeit biased, piece on the announcement, which is nicely surmised by the opening title, “The Independent ceasing to print would be the death of a medium, not of a message.” But only in time will we know for certain if this transpires.
So what other reasons could be behind this bold move? Let’s consider the environmental impact of the newspaper industry for a moment.
For someone that buys a bulky newspaper (Think ‘The Times’ etc) each day and fails to recycle, over the course of year this equates to an extra tonne of CO2 to that individual person’s carbon footprint. That’s the equivalent of two flights to Spain. Per person. Not remotely sustainable, or acceptable in 2016.
Switching to a digital format would reduce this significantly, but not completely as consumption would still be a factor; energy used to produce the publication, plus the energy used on to power the device the reader is using to read, for example. But it would be a vast improvement.
Could the driving factor be sustainability? Not solely for the environment, but also as a business model. The average age of an Independent reader is 43, with 61% of consumers being male, whilst over at its sister paper, The i, the average readers age is considerably higher at 50 years old. Year-on-year, off-line sales of The Independent decreased by 11% in 2015 alone, suggesting the possibility that as older audience members begin to pass away, younger consumers are failing to replace them, instead preferring the likes of the Sun, Mirror and Guardian - each of whom can count one third of their audience to be in the lucrative Millennial bracket.
Perhaps this is a sign of things to come; that publishers are beginning to understand the importance of appealing to the younger generations, starting with The Independent revamping its image in order to appear more accessible to the up-and-coming generation, pioneering a more strategically-inclined, sustainable business model. Not to mention, a far greener (and trendier) brand-image to boot.
The success of the Independent’s move to digital depends exclusively on the approach taken by executives to monetise the site, with a focus on engaging the reader but not detracting from the user-experience, which could culminate in the alienation of the audience. Ads need to engage, not enrage.
The growth in ad blocking software complicates this task further, as readers become more and more frustrated at the poor quality ads that are so prevalent throughout our digital journeys, the steep rise in the use of such software is no surprise.
One example of publishers taking a hard-line stance against the use of ad blocking software is Forbes.com, who completely prevent any users with ad blocking software enabled from accessing their site.
This tactic is somewhat childish and goes against the grain of attempting to understand user-behaviour and creating new, innovative user-experiences. Its reminiscent of when a child is losing at a game, throws a wobbly and refuses to play any more.
It’s also a bit of a slap in the face for users that don’t utilise ad blocking software, as the message displayed to ad block users openly acknowledges Forbes are aware there is a reason behind the use of ad block and has provided a solution in the form of an alternative ad-light experience, in exchange for disabling the ad block. Why not just provide a better experience for ALL their readers? Surely this would be a better, more sustainable solution than simply turning away visitors (revenue) that refuse to give in to Forbes’ childish tantrum demands? If consumers can’t access your content easily, they’re going to go elsewhere after all.
The Independent doesn’t have the largest online following, averaging 15.6 million monthly online users between April 2014 and March 2015. Compare that to say, the Daily Mail, who in the same period averaged 29 million online monthly readers and you can see that there is a bit of a bridge to gap, to say the least. But as the saying goes, size isn’t everything. Its how they can engage and grow that base of almost 16 million online readers to secure the future of the publication for time to come.