Print industry turns over a new leaf

(file, Reuters)
(file, Reuters)

It really is the end of an era.

From next month British paper The Independent will stop publishing a print edition and go entirely online.

It will be the first UK daily paper to do it, but the predictions are that it will not be the last.

The Independent was launched back in 1986 as a paper that was not aligned with either the left or right wing of British politics. At its peak, its circulation was around 430,000 copies a day. But that has fallen to around 58,000.

Like other papers The Independent has also seen a sharp drop in its print advertising revenue. The summer of 2015 saw revenue from print ads fall 30 percent for the British press.

So The Independent's Russian owner, Evgeny Lebedev, has decided the paper will go fully digital.

The Lebedev family are selling sister paper I to a rival publisher for £25 million and will attempt to turn The Independent into a website with a global - and profitable - audience. The I paper is a lite version of The Independent, retailing for 40 pence compared to £1.60 for The Independent.

You could argue that I cannibalised the audience for The Independent - it has been selling as many as 274,000 copies recently.

Every newsroom is embracing digital, but doing it profitably is proving hard - for several reasons.

Traditional newsrooms face challenges from online sites like The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Business Insider.

At the same time, sites like Facebook are offering advertisers a new option. Facebook has found a way to make mobile ads work, for itself and its advertisers.

Paywalls have been an answer for some websites, but not others. Some financial news services are making a go of it. So too are some provincial newspapers. In both cases they offer their audience unique content that it can be hard for a national website to match.

The Sun in the UK has abandoned its paywall. Instead, it has opted to battle with arch rival The Daily Mail for as many digital (and print) readers as it can get.

It is not that you cannot make a profit in digital. But it is hard to replicate the big profits traditional newspapers used to enjoy. BuzzFeed is barely in profit and there is doubt that The Huffington Post is there yet.

So some newspaper owners are branching out. The San Francisco Chronicle is profitable again. In part, that is due to cost-cutting and a digital membership program. But it is also because its owner, Hearst, decided to launch 46Mile - a "full-service integrated marketing and media agency." The idea is that it will sell its services to the database of companies that have been advertising with the newspaper.

Other newsrooms might be hoping for new owners with deeper pockets to come along.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post back in 2013.  He has deep pockets and the ability to use the Amazon brand to boost the Post. As an example, Amazon Prime members now get a free subscription to the Post.

It seems there is not a one-size-fit-all answer to making digital news work, nor is talk of the death of the newspaper accurate - at least not yet.

Even the owners of The Independent have not abandoned print. They still publish The Evening Standard - and yes, it is profitable.