This year the theme was: Prime Time for Publishing Growth – How to Leverage a Surging Economy. That might have been a little optimistic. Surging oil prices – and rising newsprint costs – may have arrested some of that expected economic growth. Even so, most newspapers are seeing an upturn in revenues.
In his opening address, Cheong Yip Seng, who heads the English and Malay newspapers at hosts Singapore Press Holdings, exhibited his usual caution. "It would be foolish of us to ignore serious underlying trends that pose challenges," Yip Seng advised.
Radio didn’t kill newspapers. Nor did television. And, it seems, nor will the Internet, in spite of what Bill Gates darkly predicted around a decade ago. Cheong is most worried about the youth market: "The youth are taking to other media markets like ducks to water," he says.
What was SPH’s reaction? His colleague Felix Soh, in a presentation intriguingly entitled ‘Think, Sweat, Go: How the Sunday Times Reinvented Itself’, explained how the group’s weekend flagship was rebranded as a leisure and lifestyle package. Circulation had risen by 8000 per issue and readership was lifted by 54,000 to 1.31 million. Readers were spending nine minutes more on the paper – up to 46 minutes – and advertising revenue had increased by 23 per cent, says deputy editor Soh. He illustrated how well the island republic’s almost monopoly publisher has been able to reinvent its products and meet the demands of readers.
Dutch publisher Willem Kok, who is president of Ifra, explained with humour and honesty how his Telegraaf Group was relying on diversification for growth. The company’s flagship, De Telegraaf, is The Netherlands’ bestseller. "We had a big party when we went though the 800,000 barrier," Kok says. "But we didn’t have one when we went through it again."
It’s a fact of life that time spent on print is decreasing, says Kok. The trick is to recognise how and where to grow. For example Kok’s group has started a Sunday newspaper and a free newspaper. "We were so strong we were afraid of cannibalising our own product," Kok admits. "Now we do it as fast as we can. It’s better to keep the cannibal in the family."
The Telegraaf Group has now diversified across media to television and the Internet, across borders with magazines, as well as into media research and consumer exhibitions.
The world now recognises China and India as the next two economic powerhouses of world growth and the conference dedicated a session each to these Asian tigers.
Wong Wai-ming of Global China, which has interests in newspaper and magazine distribution in China as well as its Hong Kong and international flagship newspaper Sing Tao Daily, led a discussion of the mainland market which has an advertising revenue of RMB170bn (US$20bn).
Wong, Global China’s chief executive, explained how China’s media market was opening up in phases: firstly (which has already started), in advertising to distribution and circulation; then in operations; and finally (but not yet), in news-related content.
Global China has entered the market by providing services to media operators such as distribution and consultancy.
Many newspapers had been handicapped by the prominent role the post office plays in distribution. "They don’t tell publications how many copies they have sold," Wong says. However, proper circulation audits, which are only just beginning, won’t be without problems. "The service won’t be welcomed with open arms," Wong admits. "The real numbers will be embarrassing."
From India, Maheshwer Peri, the publisher of the Outlook Group, gave an overview of booming India, a nation revitalised by its young middle class. Foreign publishers are besieging India, Peri says. But for media opportunities, as Peri points out, the door remains almost shut – with 26 per cent ceiling on foreign direct investment in newspapers and magazines dealing in news and current affairs.
In a roundtable of top executives, Alan Chan of Singapore Press Holdings, Sandy Prieto-Romualdez of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Allan Marshall of Associated Newspapers in the United Kingdom brought up issues that were concerning senior management: namely revenue, circulation, market share and controlling costs.
Faced with the onslaught of other media, Prieto warns, "Gone are the days when your competitor is another newspaper."
Although revenue is back, Marshall says, "Classified is not coming back the way we wanted it to come back." He pointed out how the latest technology – in this case, CTP – can improve editorial times and cut costs. But he predicts, "We are in for a very difficult five or ten years".
With 50 per cent of Singapore’s ad spend going into newspapers, Alan Chan probably has more cause to be happy than most CEOs. But he still argues print’s case. "We always remind advertisers that TV advertising is always fleeting. A print ad is always there," Chan says.
From Europe, Stig Nordqvist, Ifra’s Nordic representative who is closely involved in research on future formats for newspapers, told delegates about the latest developments beyond the printed word: e-papers with e-ink for e-readers.
"Newspapers, for me, are not bound to be a printed product," Nordqvist explains, describing how Phillips had developed prototypes with paper-like readability, low power, and high resolution. They were ultra-thin and portable and had a simple rugged structure. Manufacturers in Japan are developing similar devices. Underlining the new technological approach, Torry Pedersen from Norway explained how his company, VG Multimedia, a unit of the country’s No. 1 newspaper Verdens Gang, was prospering.
Take three examples of VG’s innovation encouraging reader ineteraction on its online edition: youngsters are encouraged to send their photos to the web site in a contest to see who most resembles a celebrity; a reader sends in a photograph taken from an airliner of a panel dangling from its mounting; and a nationwide campaign to stop smoking, with readers urged to put their names on the website when they give up – with the option to be shamed if they return to tobacco.
Kerry Northrup, head of Ifra’s Newsplex project, outlined the latest developments in media convergence, a phenomenon successfully practised by Ulrik Hagerup, editor of Denmark’s NordJyske Medier. But as Hagerup noted in his energetic case-study of a newspaper’s rejuvenation: "Media convergence is like teenage sex. Everybody thinks everybody else is doing it." It may have some way to go.
Along with the main conference presentations, there were breakout sessions on computer to plate, press technology and standards, photography, advertising and visual journalism. After two days of intensive information gathering – plus celebrating the winners of the Ifra Asia Media Awards at a gala dinner – the conference was closed with a presentation by Mario Garcia, the world’s leading newspaper designer. He was first to say the future was tabloid. And as ever, Garcia challenged his audience with a view of how newspapers will change.
For more information including presentations and a moblog, see www.ifra.com.
Andrew Lynch is the editor of Asian Newspaper Focus. AP thanks Ifra for kindly supplying the images used in this article.