Matt Kelly, Chief Content Officer at Archant, has spent much of the last decade trying to convince newspaper execs that their company’s future depends on embracing the digital revolution and becoming multi-faceted, platform-agnostic, agile publishing machines.
So it is a tad ironic that his current role is as the architect and the editor of one of the fastest growing print media titles in the UK.
Or is it?
Billed as the antidote to Brexit, The New European has gone from being a four issue experiment to the flourishing flag bearer of the 48% of Britons who voted against leaving the EU. It is a remarkable journey that has in many ways been inspired by digital strategies and powered by social media.
Here Matt explains how the ‘pop-up newspaper’ has evolved and what its success means for Archant, and the broader UK print news media.
The New European appeared very rapidly after the Brexit referendum - in fact, Press Gazette says it was delivered to market faster than any other British newspaper in history. Had it been planned beforehand, or was it a spontaneous creation? What was the process?
The New European process was entirely spontaneous. I certainly didn't expect the vote to go the way it did, and when it did go for leave I was struck by a sense of indignation about the vote.
I emailed Jeff Henry (Marchant CEO) the day after (the 24th of June) and said if there was ever a time for a new newspaper, it was now, because I couldn't see which newspaper reflected the views of the 48%. There was nothing because the vote had transcended traditional politics.
I very much remembered the launch of The Independent in 1986 and they had that lovely slogan: 'The Independent. It is, are you?'. I used to carry it around to demonstrate how independent I was, ironically doing exactly what they told me to do.
I'd always been struck by the concept of a newspaper or a printed media being a form of visible demonstration of what you are. So I emailed Jeff and said we should do a paper for the 48%. He emailed back straight away, and I expected him to say don't be daft but he said let’s talk about it at our executive meeting on Tuesday.
At the meeting I'd forgotten all about the idea until at the end of the meeting Jeff asked if anyone had any positive ideas about Brexit, as it had been a fairly gloomy meeting. So I said I had this idea for a new newspaper and to my genuine surprise everybody around the room got it instantly and we agreed to have a look at it over the next 24 hours to see if we could put a business case together, which we did.
The stroke of genius was the idea it was going to be ‘pop-up publishing.’ We would run it for four weeks at full pelt and have a real go but in the total knowledge it was more likely to fail.
But we'd do it. It would be a great exercise in journalism, and then we'd close it. That was the spirit we'd set out and everyone at Archant signed up to that. The first issue launched. Two weeks later we got the sales figures and it was 40,000 copies so we knew we were onto a winner then.
The business model seems to be primarily about print subscriptions. How did you reach this decision, and what do you think print has to offer in this context?
There was no online presence at all to start with. The whole thinking behind it, which I still think is very good, is that print has very real assets that digital doesn't, and they were particularly relevant to this situation. The idea that you could carry it around and show other people what you were aligned with. We were also reliant on the idea that people were much more likely to pay for it because we knew there was no advertising model to go with it immediately. So we needed some sense of revenue.
We also felt that journalists, despite all the digital progress we've made, feel there's something romantic about newspapers. I know in retrospect this sounds like a stupid thing to say but as soon as we launched it, there was a suspicion among media commentators that it was going to be full of Press Association stories and generally be a load of crap: A poor product because it was little old Archant doing it, so I was very determined to prove those people wrong.
I spoke to Jonathan Freedland about writing the first piece for this paper asking him to put his reputation on the line and do this for me? He agreed to do it. I'm sure part of that agreement was because it was a print newspaper - that this was so crazy that he wanted to be part of it. After all who gives a shit about the launch of a new website these days? Whereas launching a new newspaper, well people talk about it.
We had no marketing or advertising budget so I needed people to pay attention to it and talk about it from the off. That was all the marketing we had that first week, because Brexit was such a hot story, and we were this novelty little side issue. We got loads of free PR from the BBC and Talk Radio etc. I was completely uninterested in the idea of launching a website, this came very much later.
I knew there was only going to be one revenue stream for it, and it was going to be print subscription. I wanted people to feel that they were buying into a community and the paper was almost like a free newspaper if you were part of this community, was the ethos we went it with.
In terms of actual subscriptions, we never had any subscribers to start with. We didn't think we were sticking around beyond four issues, so there was no focus on building an army of subscribers, that came much later.
We also had a big argument about the price point: Some people in the business thought it should be 50p to get a big sale. I was very determined that we kept the price as high as we could, because I never thought the price point was going to be the defining factor in this paper’s success. I thought how well we nailed the spirit of the audience was going to be the defining factor. I wished we'd charged a fiver for it now as I really don't think it makes a difference to the audience, as the people who buy it, get it completely and they love it. The people who don't, couldn't give a shit about it, so the price isn't the main point.
Advertising is really hard to generate, not because of the paper's politics or circulation, it's just getting a brand new product into the market and getting agencies to pay attention to it is incredibly difficult. The agencies are so lethargic in how they address a new market. They've got everything stitched up including their deals with the major publishers. Their audiences all marked out already on their buying schedules and getting some attention at agency level is like blood out of a stone.
But we keep banging on the door and the audience we've got is very upmarket, very wealthy, almost exclusively AB. It is very well defined and we know all about them. Also our subscription rate is growing at a rate faster than any other current affairs magazine in the country, putting on 200 subscribers a week. So it's a really successful product. It's getting the agencies to pay attention to it that's the issue, but we'll get there in time, I'm sure.
How do you see The New European progressing and evolving as the Brexit negotiations continue? It's remarkable that initially it was only meant to have four editions. Does it have a shelf life?
I can see it still being around in 5 years' time, but equally I can see at the end of this Brexit process, people may feel so sick about the outcome, that they don't want this weekly reminder of how awful it turned out, so I can see it going either way.
We've spent a lot of time developing a multi-dimensional product. It's not just about boring people senseless about Brexit each week. There's loads of great cultural coverage, we cover lots of other political topics. In it's structure, it's modeled on The Economist. We try to cover the politics of the week really well, but we also want to entertain people with good culture coverage in the second half as well. It's a broader product than perhaps people give it credit for and maybe that's what will keep it going beyond Brexit.
So far you have been resolutely print focused. Do you have any plans to expand into podcasting, video, and other mediums? How does TNE interact with social media, given the focus on print?
The online output, podcasts, videos, social media are used as marketing techniques to get people to buy into the paper. The website is a marketing vehicle for subscriptions to the newspaper. I'm happy that it spreads around, that people can share the content they like to their friends - that helps spread the word.
This sounds completely archaic now, but the focus is trying to get people to buy the newspaper for all the reasons we've spoken about and it seems to be working. I've spent the last 15 years convincing news organisations to make this great transformation from just being a newspaper to something much more multi-faceted. It's a little bit ironic now that I find myself in a position where I am purely driving print sales, which is probably a really shit career move!
Having invested all of that time trying to get a digital reputation I've now gone and blown it completely with a successful print launch. If you look at it objectively, there's no business case for the New European unless it's got a really strong healthy newspaper sale. It's always going to be a small niche audience, but if you have a very small staff like we do - we've only got three people working on it and a bunch of contributors, then then you can see how it's a sustainable, profitable business without having to sell 120,000 copies.
Do you think Archant, or indeed any other publishers, will add similar issue focused print titles to their portfolios? Are niches the future of print?
The idea of pop-up publishing is something that is very interesting to a business like Arcant, where we've got a broad portfolio of products. We have got a couple of live ideas about what the next thing could be. I don't think it's something that you approach indiscriminately. The collision of events at the timing of the New European was very particular that's true, but what's interesting for me is the nature of pop-up publishing allows an editor to have a freer hand. It is incredibly liberating. Because there was no big business case for it and no expectation for it I just thought to hell with it, I'm just going to do the paper I want to do. So we'll do very bold front pages and if we shock a few people, then that's fine - we're going to be shut next week, so who cares?
I think it was exactly that sense of abandon that made people latch onto it. If we'd been more cautious, it wouldn't have worked.
I think the spirit of pop-up publishing is no different to the design and thinking in digital, so perhaps it's just that sense of the old bullshit of 'fail fast, fail cheap' and I'd much rather 'succeed fast, succeed cheap' and that's what The New European's done.
If there's any suspicion that politics is a turn-off, then I think The New European nails that. You can’t treat politics like showbiz, just treat it as something that is incredibly interesting and I don't think that politics has ever been more interesting than it has been right now.
People are a little confounded by The New European because it looks very brash and tabloid-y, yet we're covering very important issues. Like a 3,500 word article by Mike White each week on the week's politics. Very long form journalism doesn't have to look and feel boring. You can be bold and shouty and attract attention but still be very considerate and intelligent.
What lessons have you learned from TNE that you can share with other publishers?
I think the idea that's really important is that much legacy media is built along fault lines that are no longer relevant to people’s lives and that this erosion of newspaper and magazine sale that we're seeing is possibly in-part because in truth those products no longer reflect this.
If you can't reinvent your own brand based on what you honestly believe to be true about your audience, then you are in a death spiral. If you can take a step back and say, ‘do you know what? We just need to objectively think about what our audience really cares about, not what we have been peddling them for the last 20 years and start afresh’ either under your own brand or a new brand, then I think you can really re-invigorate your product.
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