Can newspapers survive?

Poor quality creative, inflexible publishers and a lack of accountability could erode the power of newspapers as an advertising vehicle. Richard Abbott asks if it the time has come for publishers to get creative or die

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By  Richard Abbott Published  July 16, 2006

Can newspapers survive?|~|papers2001.jpg|~|Egyptians browse newspapers in Cairo|~|The doom-mongers would have you believe that newspapers are about to be consigned to the dustbin of history. The emergence of the internet and 24-hour news channels, they claim, leaves the printed word clunky and outdated. And let’s face it, you’re not going to get newsprint on your hands from a TV screen are you? Across the world, newspapers have been hastily ramping up their online offering. The UK’s Guardian newspaper recently announced that its journalists would be filing for the web first. Previously, stories from the print edition only appeared in cyberspace when the printing presses started to roll. But, while there are plenty of meaty threats for publishers to contend with, talk of the death of newspapers may be a little premature. Let’s examine the case for the defence. The beauty of the printed word is its ability to target different factions of the Middle East’s diverse population. Newspapers are defined by their language and politics. Some want to challenge the status quo, others are little more than forelock-tugging conduits for government propaganda. Newspapers are the medium of choice for marking important announcements, be that the death of a statesman, or the announcement of an absconding accountant. Their heritage stands them in good stead among decision makers. David Spencer, marketing director of the UAE-based real estate giant Nakheel, the developer behind The Palm and The World, says newspapers are part of the region’s life blood. “They are the underbelly of any good city,” he says. “For me, there is nothing better than to drive around Dubai on a Friday and look into the cafes at the groups of people drinking coffee, each of them reading a different newspaper.” He adds: “Newspapers are very important and they will continue to be that way.” The standard presentation from a newspaper advertising salesman follows the same tried and trusted formula. Play to your strengths. Talk about dwell time, the fact that people actively choose to read newspaper ads rather than having them forced upon them, the ability to initiate sales. Ayad Tassabehji, general manager of The Daily Star in Lebanon, is a past-master at selling newspaper advertising. “Since it is in print, adverts can be viewed with sufficient time, anytime and anywhere. No need to be sitting in front of a TV,” he says. “Furthermore, a lot more detailed information can be delivered in print compared to TV.” Mohamed K Alayyan, publisher and chairman of Jordanian daily Al Ghad, agrees. “Newspapers offer flexibility, timeliness — a good ad can be produced in one day if the concept strikes — broad acceptability and high believability. “It allows the brand to be with you wherever you are, it is less intrusive and it is far more detailed. “Newspapers offer lower distraction levels, lower fleeting exposure than TV and, most importantly a good newspaper ad can deliver impact immediately at a lower cost and far less frequency.” Andre Karam, director of sales and marketing at the Al Seyassah and Arab Times newspapers in Kuwait, agrees that newspaper ads are not as intrusive as those in other media. “Unlike TV and outdoor ads, the decision to go through newspaper ads is not compulsory and unless it triggers your attention you can still flip to another page,” he says. And he has hard evidence to back up his claims. “Research suggests that consumers who are in the market to make a purchase usually seek information in newspapers because it effectively delivers the message to its audience. Newspaper ads initiate the purchasing impulse.” The case for advertising in newspapers is undoubtedly a strong one. But an analysis of recent advertising spending data for the region does not paint a rosy picture. Data from the Pan Arab Research Center shows that newspapers’ share of the advertising market in Saudi Arabia declined from 47% in 1995 to 21% to 2003. Over the same period, TV expenditure went from 27% to 69%. The latest data from Ipsos-Stat for the entire GCC and Levant region shows the gap to be closer, with TV at 45% to newspapers 39% in the 12 months leading up to May this year. Just like many newspapers’ ‘claimed’ circulation figures, this research is open to interpretation. The bulk of TV advertising is spent on pan-Arab channels, whereas the strength of newspapers is their ability to drill down to local markets. But there is little doubt that there has been a slow but steady decline in newspaper advertising. As satellite dishes have become more widely available, TV has become the media of choice for news and entertainment. Rolling news channels have become the instant news providers and newspapers have had to rethink their offer, focusing more on features and analysis. Critics argue that much newspaper advertising is one-dimensional and uncreative, with ideas having to work doubly hard to stand out. The boom in real estate and bank advertising has produced a glut of similar looking, uninspired ads. Nakheel’s Spencer says the sheer volume of new real estate developments has created a wallpaper of similar ads in the newspapers of the UAE. ||**||Can newspapers survive?|~||~||~|“Of late, Nakheel has had less of a presence in newspapers. Part of this is because of the fact that we think a lot of the advertising has become very same-ish,” he explains. “Newspapers are an extremely important part of our marketing platform but you can get a little bit lost if you use the traditional formats. “We are currently working on a new look and feel for all of Nakheel’s advertising and marketing. Our direction is going to be more lifestyle orientated. When you see Nakheel in the newspaper, it will be different from our competitors. We will be a little bit fresher, more humanised.” Nakheel’s advertising is split into corporate branding, and project-specific campaigns. For the former, it spends a small fraction on newspapers, while for projects, it can be up to 30%. Tassahbehji accepts that the creative standard of newspaper advertising could be better. “I feel that advertising agents are not taking full advantage of the newspaper format. A great newspaper advert is the one that makes the reader cut out the advert and keep it for future reference.” Alayyan says the situation in Jordan is similar: “We have seen great ads but I still feel that at a holistic level we have a long way to go.” From a media owner’s perspective, money in the bank from selling pages is the most important thing. The culture of ‘kickbacks’ — where the media agency receives a payment from the media owner for placing a certain amount of advertising with them — means that the focus can be on quantity rather than quality. But Gavin Dickinson, commercial director at Awraq Publishing, owner of the tabloid UAE titles Emirates Today and Emarat Al Youm, says that publishers need to think long-term or risk seeing their market share diminish further. “All advertisers are saying ‘help me stand out’. There is an amazing pressure on the media owner,” he says. He points out how one of his rival newspapers, a broadsheet, ran two full-page ads facing each other, with no editorial to entice readers into the spread. This kind of bad flat-planning, he argues, could lead to clients spending their money elsewhere. “A lot of people are saying ‘let’s be creative’, but a lot of that is lazy talk. Where are the big ideas?” he says. “I’ve had clients offer to buy all of the ad sites in the paper — is that really creative? “All it seems to be is big budgets smashing each other. It’s the same with outdoor on the Sheikh Zayed Road. You tell me that another ad for a tower is good — I don’t think so.” Spencer wants to see newspapers organise their property advertising better, with dedicated sections for specific developments such as The Palm, or the Burj Dubai. He also wants his newspaper advertising to be more personalised, mentioning branded poly-bags as one way of achieving stand out. “Newspaper advertising is very offer driven. I would like to see more lifestyle advertising but we seem to be hung up on offers. “The newspaper will evolve. We have seen the different formats being introduced in the last few years and the fact that there is so much activity within the media is a good thing.” So what can be done to rescue readers from page after page of uncreative advertising clutter? Ravi Rao, general manager at OMD Dubai, argues that a newspaper ad must stop a reader in his or her tracks. And clever media placement can work just as well as an artistic idea. “It is essential to look at making a break from tradition to stand out. This can be in the news value, such as a promotion or launch, or in the design. We have also been developing unusual formats, space combinations and positions,” he says. Dickinson’s titles are part of the wider Arab Media Group, which can offer a cross-media sell incorporating multi-language radio and events. He argues that this makes newspaper ads work harder, as they are linked to other consumer touchpoints. Karam admits his frustration at finding effective solutions for clients. “I wish there was a formula — then we would have been in a much better shape,” he says. “At the end of the day if an ad moves you, it means it has reached you and consequently has achieved its objective. Bottom line, the idea and the execution along with the message have to catch the customer’s attention; otherwise the ad would be a total failure.” These techniques for making an ad stand out are achievable — and implementing them is an absolute must, according to Dickinson. The stakes couldn’t be higher. “If we don’t become more flexible and open up, we stand the chance that newspapers will lose share,” he says. “For the sake of the newspaper industry, we should see more creativity. “Newspapers are big lumbering beasts. They are maximising profits but if they are going to keep pace with online and new media they have to drive creative ideas. “It is about obstruction, stopping the reader by having something that jumps out at them.” Dickinson uses the example of having an image of a ball being kicked through an editorial page in a newspaper’s sports section. But he acknowledges the fine line that separates creative advertising from editorial integrity. “I think the editor would go nuts but that is where we have to go,” he says. Half the problem, according to some agencies is that sales executives of newspapers simply do not know how to sell creatively, and their companies fail to train them in offering effective cut-through solutions. Much of this can be blamed on the high level of advertising booked into newspapers, which can lead to complacency. In radio, where market share is low, sales staff have to come up with something creative simply to get on to the media plan. But whose responsibility is it to drive creativity in newspaper advertising? Fingers can be pointed at publisher, the media agency, the advertising agency, even the client. Tassahbehji admits that his newspaper very rarely works with clients to produce better ads. Alayyan explains further: “Our role has been restricted to exploring with our clients more creative media solutions rather than creative concepts, but that in turn has, and in most cases, led to a more creative product. “It is when a medium allows for out of the box executions that the advertising is able to lift itself from the swamp of sameness.” Both Dickinson and Karam believe the obligation rests firmly with the ad agency. Dickinson says: “The obligation is on the ad agency to stop the reader in their tracks. I don’t think it is the newspapers obligation to deliver that.” And Karam is critical of their efforts. “Conceptually, I believe we still have a long way to go and the standard and quality of the idea is still not up to the expectations.” But he highlights the fact that many newspaper ads are promotion-driven, rather than creative masterpieces. “You cannot judge the quality of a newspaper advertisement out of its context. The nature of the market in Kuwait, the consumer and the client dictate a certain kind of advertising that is quite unique to the country,” he says. “Within this tactical and promotion driven market, a price sensitive client and a sales oriented con- sumer, I would say that we’ve witnessed some overall improvement over the past few years. “On the other hand, some of the advertising agencies have upgraded their staff with young talents, and this has positively affected the quality of newspaper advertising, at least on the art direction front.” All eyes in the newspaper industry are now on the date 1 January 2007. This is when the Circulation Audit Steering Organisation (Castor), a committee made up of UAE-based media agencies and advertisers says it will stop allocating budget to unaudited newspapers. With the majority of Arabic newspapers still to sign up with an approved auditor such as BPA Worldwide, this (in the UAE at least) has the potential to be the biggest threat yet to newspapers’ share of the marketing cake. Speaking to Campaign last month, Jan Zijderveld, chairman of the GCC Association of Advertisers and of Unilever Middle East, said there was a “good momentum” behind Castor’s initiative but much work still needed to be done. “GCCAA members will start to positively discriminate and allocate spending towards audited titles,” he said. Emirates Today and Emarat al Youm are in favour, and Dickinson wants to see Castor carry through with its threat. “The cut-off is 2007. The ref blows his whistle and he says game on,” he says. “If you are not audited, you will suffer. I want to see that. But we need to see agencies drilling down to bulk sales if we are going to do this properly. There is no going back now.” An audited newspaper market would give agencies cast-iron evidence of newspapers’ strength. After all, TV meters are still some way off and outdoor remains unmeasured. Only internet and direct marketing can claim to be truly measurable. But there seems to be little urgency to turn ‘claimed’ circulations into official figures that have been checked by a third party. This is probably because the difference between the claimed and actual figures will be so big for some titles. Creativity, flexibility and auditing are issues that won’t go away for newspaper publishers. There is little sign of budgets migrating to other media just yet, but the warning signs are there.||**||

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