"Why should news organisations work together, when we can struggle separately?," asks The Guardian's head of media, Dan Sabbagh.
It’s a deceptively loaded question, steeped in history and intrigue, and quite indicative of the navel-gazing emanating from Kings Place at present.
A week earlier, the paper’s investigations executive editor, David Leigh, had floated the idea of a "small levy on UK broadband providers of £2 per month", which could then be automatically redistributed to "news providers" according to their share of online readership.
Leigh noted excitedly: "On the most recent figures, this system would provide transformative chunks of money to the most popular news websites. The Telegraph group, the Associated Newspapers' stable and the Guardian Media Group would each receive in the region of 20% of the cash – £100 million a year. Even the Independent papers would pick up around £40 million a year."
I’m drawn to that needless use of the word "even" in the last sentence, because for me it hints at the problem British newspapers face in today. For as long I can remember, the press in the UK has been fiercely fractious, or as Sabbagh concedes, "hopelessly Balkanised ".
Such animosity has had a serious, material impact on the industry’s ability to adapt and progress in the digital age. Experiences and insights are seldom shared, research is guarded and partisan strategies are constructed and distorted around party lines: So The Guardian stands for free (now rebranded open), The Times for paywalls, Mail Online for mass interest and comment, and so it goes round.
In truth, rarely do I meet executives at any newspaper who adamantly adhere to these strait jackets. One enduring truism it that the grass is always greener, and I know many a News International executive fed up with their lack of presence in search or social, Mail execs are troubled by the relentless, provocative trivia, and Guardian leaders frustrated by giving it all away while debts mount.
And so to Sabbagh’s idea of creating a newspaper answer to Sky’s bundling of sources, with one digital gatekeeper to avoid conceding 30% of sales to Apple. It seems reasonable, before you consider this formed the very basis of News Corporation’s industry snubbed Project Alesia only two years earlier.
The UK project promised to aggregate content from News Corp’s core print titles and those of rival newspaper and magazine publishers, and make it available across all digital platforms, including the iPad and Google’s Android operating system.
News Corp is believed to have invested up to £20 million in the project, WPP's GroupM were tasked with ensuring advertiser interest, but it still failed to get out of the starting blocks due in large part to industry resistance. By far the most vociferous opponent to such a united front was The Guardian.
The irony is not lost on Ian Clark, News Corp’s former commercial managing director responsible for driving the initiative. He believes any opportunity for news organisations to work together online has now passed, and dismisses any attempts to resurrect the idea as "close to impossible".
'Publishers would rather lose money than join forces'
Now at Cambiare Consultants, Clark tells me: "The chance was there when paywall philosophies were evolving and News Corp was prepared to underwrite the venture. Battle lines are too entrenched today. Publishers would rather lose money than join forces.
"News Corp's Alesia understood that access to digital content in itself is not enough. Significant investment was made to create an enhanced user experience. Seamless transition between titles, integrated search, format commonality, interoperability between devices are merely the table stakes. I seriously doubt whether NI, Associated or TMG would invest jointly, in preference to proprietorial digital investment, leaving Apple as the only winners."
Elsewhere, "even" Zach Leonard, digital managing director at the Independent and Evening Standard, appears to rule out such a move. He tells me that while he still considers paid as a potential viable model, they have calculated the premium advertising to be had from the free model is the path the Indy will be sticking to for the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, he admits trials by the Independent to charge for content in the US have not been as successful in harvesting data or subscription revenues as hoped, and in the coming weeks the Evgeny Lebedev-owned newspaper is set to lower fresh-holds from 20 free articles per month, to just 10 in a bid to improve registrations.
Meanwhile, a senior executive at the Telegraph Media Group tells me they are now on their third iteration of a possible metered model, with still no clear decision in sight.
Everything's a possibility
The truth is, the economic climate for publishers has not improved in 2012, print sales are falling, adspend is hard fought and most options remain on the table in all boardrooms. The one notable exception is the prospect of The Guardian abandoning print altogether any time soon.
We know this after a flyer suggesting such a move repeated on the Telegraph.co.uk was robustly shot down yesterday as "the opposite of the truth" by editor Alan Rusbridger, and "100% nonsense" by Sabbagh. The article was always too ambitious, we know any phase out of print would solely hit the weekday editions first.
As for Project Alesia mark 2 being on the horizon? I doubt it. But with operating losses at GNM of £44.2m in its last financial year, there can be no harm in testing the water.
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