Peter Preston, The Observer
Welcome to newspaper heaven – currently one of Finland’s biggest cities, where the editor can tell you how many copies get delivered each morning to pre-paid, tied-in, loyally subscribing customers. ‘Oh, 98 per cent,’ he says blithely. He knows who his readers are. He knows they’ll be there tomorrow. He’s happy to let the postman take care of deliveries. He can get on with his journalism.
And newspaper hell? No welcomes, because we’re back in Britain. Home-delivered copies are at about 20 per cent and falling. The Royal Mail can’t even drop off a postcard on time. Editors don’t know who their readers are. (They’re lost in a two-stage distribution system notably short on useful data.) Newsstand sales are a constant dogfight. Freesheets waylay customers on every station concourse. It’s a mess, and it’s deeply non-technological. Do you want to stop your papers for a week? Watch the man behind the counter reach for his pencil and ledger.
But not, perhaps, for too much longer. The London Standard, edited by Veronica Wadley, launched its new Eros card on Waterloo station last week: and, soon, newspaper distribution will never be the same again.
In short order, the Eros card is like the (bus and Tube) Oyster card. No need to scrabble for change or form a queue when you want your Standard. Just press on a pad and that – with a suitable discount – is that. Why go this way? Because London’s zone one is turning cashless anyway. (Call it the PayPal revolution.) And because it’s helpful to know how many Standards your 300 vendors are shifting. .
This, though, is only the start of something big. How do you top up your Eros card? One possible way is as easy as topping up a mobile phone. You can do that in 30,000 or so newspaper shops already, according to David Tymm, the boss of a company called i-movo, which helped to create the Eros gambit.
So there’s no great reason why, very shortly, you shouldn’t be able to buy any paper of your choice this way – or, a year or two later, a combination of papers via a new generation of mobile phones.
The Times and the Mail have dabbled with testings already. The technology worked well with bargain offers in Wild Bean Cafes. Prepare for a digital upheaval in ledger land.
What’s on offer besides convenience? You have a reward card that, via price cuts and offers, actually rewards loyal readers, rather than scatters DVDs across a pond of swift forgetfulness. (Note that the Standard hasn’t given anything away for six months now.) You have, in effect, a digital subscription that locks customers in to their pre-paid choice.
And you have what could prove the most precious commodity of the lot: you know, at last, who your readers are, where they live, what they spend. The magic of branding joins your armoury.
Too euphoric? Probably. The byways of newspaper distribution run a long way from paradise. The massive problem of intercepting readers on their way into work looms large. The non-online, no-mobile, non-texting swathes of readers who aren’t interested in all this stuff – at their age! – means there can’t be a complete or instant solution. Some of the necessary technology doesn’t really exist yet.
But don’t doubt the interest in making it work. It would be lovely to live in Finnish heaven. That’s why the Telegraph listed 336,000 subscription copies sold in the last recorded ABC monthly figures. It’s worth charging a lot less to find out who your customers are, they say. That’s why the Times – with more than 110,000 subscriptions – is following suit. Full price doesn’t give you full information – and information, properly exploited, is long-term survival. Maybe cross-fertilisation comes with an Eros card.