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The i has it
Newspapers are the oldest of the mass media, but might their sometimes glorious (and occasionally scurrilous) history be coming to an end? Having seen off the challenge first of radio and then of television, printed news in the UK is now under serious threat from digital media. But one publisher has made a counter-intuitive decision.
The sales figures tell a story of long-term decline. Looking at the 2002-2012 period, circulations of UK national daily newspapers fell every single year. For the mass-market tabloid segment, the annualized rate of change was -9.9%. For the smaller quality press segment, including the Guardian, Times, and Independent, it was even worse, at -12.8%. 2013 saw the trends persist. Sales of advertising, a second and vital revenue stream, have also fallen. In 2005, 35% of UK advertising spend went to newspapers, but by 2012, this had fallen to 23%.
There is little doubt about the cause of this decline. Internet news sources, including the online versions of print newspapers, have impressive advantages for readers. Breaking stories can be updated almost in real time, it’s easy to include multimedia content, and reader comments can be – how shall we put it? – a bit livelier than the Letters page of a typical print newspaper. Above all, online news is almost always free to view.
Publishers are developing defensive strategies. Most of these depend on monetizing the online versions more effectively, for example by introducing pay walls. In these market conditions, to launch a new national print daily is quixotic, to say the least. But this is exactly what the Independent did in October 2010, when the first edition of the i rolled off the presses. It contains a selection of content from the main paper, and has a similar design. It was priced at £0.20 a copy, compared to £1.00 for the full-size version.
The rationale was that it filled a gap in the market. Commuters in particular were looking for a paper with a physical format suitable for reading on public transport, at a low price, but with more upmarket content than the tabloid newspapers offered.
So far, the decision looks to have been a good one. While the Independent experienced falling circulation, the i bucked the market trend and grew.
MarketLine estimates that despite the low cover price, the new venture has meant that combined copy sales revenue for the Independent and the i has been stable since its launch. Advertising sales will be an added bonus. It will be interesting to see whether this can be maintained as tablet computers grow in popularity and make online news more accessible to the target readership. But at the moment, there’s clearly still room for hot metal in a cold market climate.
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