For many, The Independent’s decision to move towards becoming a pure digital publisher wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Print circulation has been in a declining trend for years and I doubt costs have decreased at the same rate.
The biggest surprise was that they were the first to do it.
As Evgeny Lebedev’s letter to his employees said: “We will be the first of many leading newspapers to embrace a wholly digital future…But UK print newspaper market conditions mean this change is inevitable…With the spirit of a start-up, and all the authority of our heritage, this transition means the world’s most innovative news brand can embark on a sustainable future.”
BBC Three gave a similar statement when it announced its move to being online-only, which happened on the 16th Feb.
The Independent’s site currently has a monthly readership of 58 million and its predicted online revenue will grow by 50% this year.
But, is digital really the sustainable future they are hoping for? I’m not doubting whether digital is here to stay, nor that it has radically changed our consumption habits. Just this week the IAB reported 70% of people use a connected device whilst watching TV and most online activity is done during a programme, rather than during ad breaks.
The challenges facing digital
Despite the facts outlined above, there are some big challenges and changes facing digital:
- Ads on site are a key form of revenue, but with the growth of ad blockers, this is potentially under threat or certainly going to be effected.
- This is further exacerbated by developments, such as Accelerated Mobile Pages, that strip much of this ad content out.
- Charging for accessing content is a bold decision and against much of the ethos of the web and what many users are prepared to do. It may bring in subscriber revenue but potentially reduce ad revenue, as the readership will inevitably drop a little. The Times, however, has been doing this for years now.
- Syndicated (licensed) content is a growing trend, but the SEO implications of this for the partners needs to be managed to avoid any issues.
- Online and offline fuel each other. Offline has a key role in awareness raising and a supportive role in engagement and customer loyalty, advocacy and cross-selling. So what will be the effect on digital through the removal of the offline presence? How will new potential readers find out about The Independent?
Closing the print editions and continuing as is, digitally, will not deliver the sustainable future wanted. The offer, operation, management and strategy need to change now that there isn’t a printed version. Digital will be hit by this change too and I’m sure there will be more announcements and developments in what the digital offer will be before this change comes into effect, or at least I hope so.
Content maybe king, but they shouldn’t fall into the trap of ‘build it and they will come’. A serious look at income generation options, the content strategy, customer experience and relationship building with readers will be what will make this sustainable.
One to watch over the next year.