Digital disruption is now in full bloom at European, Australian newspapers

Traveling periodically to Europe and Latin America in the 2000s to speak at news business events, I got a consistent impression: international newspapers were better off than ours, but executives could see U.S.-style decline on the horizon within a few years.

Statistics released yesterday by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) suggest that digital disruption is now in full bloom in Europe and Australia. Latin American newspapers are still showing moderate circulation and advertising growth. The picture is mixed in Asia and Africa.

The summary picture now matches the United States fairly exactly:  some growth in combined digital and print audience, digital ad revenues not keeping pace and both print circulation and print advertising declining sharply.

And Larry Kilman, secretary general of the association, sees a familiar implication.  "Unless we crack the revenue issue," he wrote in a release summarizing the findings,  "and provide sufficient funds so that newspapers can fulfill their societal role, democracy will inevitably be weakened."

Former French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici reads a newspaper during the EU Finance Ministers meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels in 2013. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

The report's release coincides with the association's annual World Congress conference, being held in Turin today through Wednesday.

The WAN-IFRA statistics show print circulation declining 5.29 percent in 2013, comparing with losses of 5.20 percent in Europe and 9.94 percent in Australia and Oceania during 2013.

A five-year comparison showed those regions faring even worse: while print circulation was down 10.25 percent in North America, it declined 23.02 percent in Europe and 19.59 percent in Australia and Oceania.

Print advertising losses for the year were comparable in North America (-8.7 percent) and Europe (-8.2 percent).  Australia and Oceania are not broken out separately for this measure.

As in the United States, paid digital circulation was up sharply worldwide, 60 percent for the year, and digital advertising continued to grow by 11 percent in 2013.

But the report adds important qualifiers. Newspaper organizations get only a modest share of overall digital advertising growth where Google and other big non-news companies dominate. And despite the digital revenue gains, globally 93 percent of newspaper revenues still come from print.

The report also takes a sideways swipe at the industry's reliance on unique visits and page views as indicators or digital health.  More important, it says, is building the level of engagement:

While 46 per cent of the digital population visits newspaper websites, newspapers are a small part of total internet consumption, representing only 6 per cent of total visits, 0.8 per cent of pages viewed and 1.1 per cent of total time spent on digital platforms.

As in the United States, comparatively few international newspaper organizations have gone out of business (FT Deutschland is an exception).  But waves of sharp newsroom staff reductions and other expense cuts are common in both Europe and Australia.

European governments have been much more aggressive than ours in attempting to regulate Google or force subsidies to news organizations suffering financially.  France persuaded Google to donate $80 million, mostly in-kind services, to news organizations there in exchange for freedom to link to content.

The WAN-IFRA program reflects a roster of potential transformation strategies:  faster innovation, attracting capital, data as an asset both for news and business, video and reports tailored to mobile devices.

But those are all prospects for a stronger growth story rather than widely achieved successes with easily replicable models. Kilman's commentary concludes:

If newspaper companies cannot produce sufficient revenues from digital, if they cannot produce exciting, engaging offerings for both readers and advertisers, they are destined to offer mediocre products with nothing to differentiate them from the mass of faux news.


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