Going digital only - not the walk of shame it once was

How going digital-only became a positive move for publishers.

Going digital-only was once seen as a last desperate throw of the dice for a dying print brand. But not any more.*

Take Auto Trader as a for-instance. If anyone was going to be sunk by the rise of digital media it was a magazine based almost purely on classified motor vehicle advertising. For those who haven’t noticed – the advertising of cars, houses and jobs has now moved almost exclusively online, with devastating consequences for newspapers (and to a lesser extent magazines) large and small.

Trader Media Group (joint owned by Guardian News and Media and Apax) is the ultimate example of how an old-fashioned print business can not only survive but really thrive in the digital age.

Back in 2000 Auto Trader was selling 368,000 copies a week and helping Trader Media achieve revenues of £220m a year. (It was an early adopter to online by the way and at that point claimed to be attracting 28m ‘page impressions’ a month.)

In 2005/2006 (reckoned by many to be the high water-mark of print newspaper profitability in the UK) it reported turnover of £303.3m and delivered an operating profit of £119.5m. (By this stage it was attracting 6.6 million unique users to its website a month).

This week Trader Media Group announced that its dwindling print edition would be scrapped at the end of June. At last count it sold 27,000 copies a week compared with claimed website traffic of 11m unique website visitors a month.

In the financial year to April 2012, Trader Media Group achieved turnover of £257.2m and an EBITDA profit figure of £142.9m.

Now the profit figures may not be directly comparable. But nonetheless, I would be surprised if any other big media brand can claim to be actually making more money today than they did in 2005. Apart from the little matter of digital disruption we are now five years in to the biggest media downturn in history.

Auto Trader has succeeded by being the very best at what it does. Its free-to-air website is supercharged with an array of digital tools which make it the perfect place to buy and sell your car.
Ebay has made some in-roads into this market, but most of us still feel that a decision on which car to buy is too important to trust to a general auction website. So the market is still dominated by Auto Trader and the other specialist sites.

I’m sure Auto Trader has also been enormously helped in its move to becoming a digital-only business by the print heritage which has made it a trusted brand. Its success shows that you don’t always swap print pounds for digital pennies when you move from being a paid-for newspaper or magazine to a free website.

*Declaration of interest: Press Gazette went digital-only at end of last year.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.