Publishers struggle to agree a way out of the gloom

Facing a crisis, publishers need to club together to survive.

These are worrying times for consumer publishing, even without Donald Trump’s inauguration ushering in a dark new chapter for free speech and journalism.

Under new UK legislation called Section 40, publishers that refuse to sign up to an approved media regulator could be liable to pay the costs of a plaintiff, even if they win the case.

Most newspaper and magazine publishers are already being badly squeezed because advertisers and agencies continue to shift their money into Facebook and Google, which are taking close to 100% of digital ad growth.

In a further twist, publishers of fake news have been gobbling up ad revenues by inventing and distorting stories at a time when everyone who values democracy needs commercially viable news organisations to report accurately what is happening in our turbulent world.

For most publishers that invest in journalism and are dependent on ad revenues, this is nothing short of a crisis, although the smart ones have been expanding in subscriptions, events and ecommerce for years.

It may be a coincidence that commercial leaders at Condé Nast, Hearst, Trinity Mirror, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph have retired, quit or jumped ship in the last two months, but it hardly inspires confidence.

Publishers need to club together to survive. Some have taken comfort in the near-unanimous outcry against Section 40 as evidence that media owners can put rivalries aside. But, on the commercial side, a plan to pool newspaper ad sales is in trouble. The Daily Mail’s owner has puts its involvement on hold, moving to the sidelines of Project Rio (formerly Project Juno). DMGT is said to feel the legal obstacles and costs are too high, with little chance of persuading regulators.

Even those still on board admit the competition hurdles look even more daunting than when work began last summer.

Dave King, who has overseen ad sales at the Telegraph since 2005, says he "can’t think of an alternative" to Rio and advertisers "want it" to happen. But he is off to work in outdoor at Exterion Media.

Some of Rio’s supporters think collaboration must be deeper and include data and content if news brands are to offer agencies a one-stop sales point that could compete properly with Facebook and Google.

But time is short, and some publishers are thinking of alternatives, which is why Express Newspapers is talking again to Trinity Mirror about a tie-up.

For now, the media business remains trapped in the grip of the Facebook/Google duopoly, with grim implications for plurality and our democracy.

Gideon Spanier is head of media at Campaign. 

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