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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.