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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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