Daily news habits die hard. Weekly ones die faster

The closure of the ‘Liverpool Post’ points to dangers ahead for other print titles

Thu, Dec 12, 2013, 01:05

The fate of the Liverpool Post, closed by parent company Trinity Mirror just two years after it switched from a daily to a weekly publication, is a sorry tale of retrenchment that feels like a portent of things to come for at least some of the rest of the press.

The move “sends alarm bells ringing” for other daily titles that have been converted to weekly production, according to National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. The switch to a weekly format certainly didn’t turn out to give the 158-year-old paper, formerly called the Liverpool Daily Post, “a future as bright as its past is illustrious”, as the publishing group claimed at the time that it would.

As its “companion website” and a business daily e-edition will also cease publication, the Post will live on merely as a branded insert to Trinity Mirror’s other title in the city, the Liverpool Echo.

To date, reducing the frequency of publication is a trend that has been more apparent in the British newspaper industry than the Irish one, largely because daily regional titles were a significant feature of its market in the first place. When Johnston Press began its process of heavy cost-cutting, it was able to bank savings by turning some of its British dailies into weeklies whereas, in Ireland, where the titles it has put on the market were weeklies anyway, that option has not been available.

Here, the title that seems most immediately vulnerable to the daily-to-weekly trend is Cork’s Evening Echo. Owned by Landmark Media Investments (the restructured descendant of Thomas Crosbie Holdings), it describes itself as “the only daily newspaper dedicated to Cork”, a statement technically true as it glosses over the regional priorities of its sister title, the Irish Examiner.

Before the implosion of Thomas Crosbie Holdings, there had been fears that the Evening Echo might be downgraded into a tabloid section within the Irish Examiner, and not necessarily a daily one either. It survived the chop when TCH went into receivership, which bodes well. But few of the difficulties it faces have gone away. Although its fortunes have not plummeted as dramatically as that of the Liverpool Daily Post, the Evening Echo’s sales numbers are not healthy. In the first half of this year, its circulation was 15,400, down 12 per cent year-on-year. In 2006, sales averaged above 27,000.

But it would be wrong to suggest that only regional print titles will wind up having to justify their status as dailies. Sooner or later, national ones will too. One of the defining features of the decline in Irish newspaper circulation has been that some days of the week have been hit harder than others. Rather than severing their links with news brands altogether, readers who used to purchase daily titles six days a week have cut back to two or three days a week.

The day will eventually come when “digital first” news outlets are tempted to cut their losses on low circulation days and limit print editions to the days of the week more obviously suited to “lean-back”, screen-free reading. In other words, the end-years of their print existence may well include a period as a single Saturday weekly edition. But giving up on that daily contact with print-edition customers is a dangerous break to make. The British media industry experience suggests that readers, once starved of access to their chosen title, don’t flock to the masthead when it does deign to appear.

The five Johnston Press titles in the UK that switched to weeklies production last year all saw double-digit drops in their circulation, while four titles owned by the Northcliffe (now Local World) media group that converted a year earlier also fell into the same pattern of decline.

This is a chicken-and-egg game, of course. As news groups respond to changing reader routines by targeting their resources on digital publication, they hasten the death of these old print-reading habits. With readers already disconnecting from the simple process of walking into a shop and buying a newspaper, it won’t take much to dissuade them from doing so altogether.

This may well be completely fine if news outlets are ready and able to inculcate new digital habits – paying ones – in their readership base. Happily, smartphones and tablets are delightfully habit-forming devices. But digital publications will have to be strong enough to survive on their own by this crunch point, in terms of both revenue and the brand loyalty they can command.

Any media group still describing their digital assets as “companion websites”, or treating them as loss leaders, will be asking for trouble.

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