Polskapresse’s flawed strategy for dealing with falling circulation

Six months ago Polish publishing company Polskapresse took an innovative step in response to declining sales. The company, at the time publishing six regional dailies in different parts of Poland, decided to combine them under one brand: “Polska”. Marek Miller makes an early evaluation of this project.

The reason

The Polish regional press market is divided in two. Half belongs to Media Regionalne (part of David Montgomery’s Mecom) which publishes nine regional dailies; the other half belongs to Polskapresse (part of German Verlagsgruppe Passau). The press market was divided in the way that no regional newspaper published by both publishers would compete directly on the same regional market.

At a time of falling newspaper circulation, the Board of Polskapresse came up with an idea. Knowing that something had to be done to stop this falling trend, the publisher decided to compete with other newspapers on the national level.

The idea sounded pretty easy at first – to create a national newspaper, built on the brands and journalists from regional newspapers. The project was to include the titles from both companies: Polskapresse and Media Regionalne. When combined, the sales level of 16 regional newspapers was higher than of any newspaper in Poland (695,000 copies in January 2007 compared to 512,000 copies of “Fakt” and 482,500 copies of “Gazeta Wyborcza” – two largest national papers in Poland).

The plan was innovative but…

Before the project was finalized, rumours began circulating. The goal was to achieve a circulation of 1,000,000 copies. The project was difficult: a new central editorial office was created in Warsaw. All the work of six different editorial offices had to be coordinated and focused on the new product. Theoretically, thanks to the innovative Millenium platform, 750 journalists from different parts of the country could simultaneously work on one newspaper. Many well-known Polish journalists were hired to attract new readers. Finally, two design gurus from the UK participated in the creation of the layout: Matt Brown and Neville Brody.

Before the project was finished, the second publisher, Media Regionalne, backed away from it. And how could a paper become national when it was based only on regional newspapers published in half of the country only?

The solution was found quickly: Polskapresse decided to publish new titles under the brand “Polska” in regions where it had not published before, at the same time building new regional communities of readers.

From then on, the project became even more difficult: the new newspaper would have to compete on the national level with big, well-known newspapers, and in new regions with already existing titles published by Media Regionalne.

After that, the planned circulation of “Polska” was set at the level of something between 700,000 and 800,000 copies.

In the first month after launch “Polska” was bought by almost 400,000 readers.

The last news before the launch of the project was that Polskapresse entered into a deal with “The Times of London” that suggested “editorial cooperation and the use of the British newspaper’s brand”.

Problems, problems, problems

Whatever the outcome would be, it’s a known fact that publishers do not profit from the number of readers who buy their titles but from advertisers. What attracts the advertisers is… the number of readers who will see the advert.

Unfortunately for the project, the Polish Audit Bureau of Circulation (ZKDP) forbid Polskapresse to show the combined data. The problem the bureau noticed was that “Polska The Times” was not a 100% national newspaper but a hybrid of regional newspapers, with their former names still existing in the titles.

What’s more, another regional newspaper, published by a small publisher, entered project “Polska”. In that case, a project followed by two different publishers could not, according to ZKDP, be called a national newspaper. With that decision, Polskapresse was prevented from publishing combined circulation data to compare the circulation level of “Polska The Times” with that of other other national newspapers.

Numbers

The analysis of impact of the new project on Polskapresse titles’ sales level is very hard. In order to grade the scale of success (or loss) of the project, some data is necessary. Below are the levels of sales of every regional newspaper in “Polska The Times”. Those are all January data, as this year’s February wasn’t typical (5 Fridays in February 2008 meant one magazine edition more than in the same period of 2007):

Polska circulation

The above chart shows that the drop in the sales of Polskapresse titles was not stopped by the new strategy. What’s more, the impact of the project (titles in new regions) did not strengthen this position too much. The older titles lost more of their readers than the new project attracted.

An interesting example here is the last regional title – “Express Ilustrowany”. This title was not included in the project and it seems it has lost readers more slowly than the other papers from Polskapresse group.

What next?

Those readers who are tightly connected to their regions felt they lost their regional paper and received a national one instead.

The regions in Poland vary, from traditions to the form and topics of articles. But “Polska The Times” is a live newspaper responding to demands of the market. A careful reader could already have noticed more regional news and pictures of regional events on the front page. But this, again, would mean going back to the regional model. Finding out what the reader wants and responding to those demands should be a key strategy now. But will it be possible to attract the lost readers again?

Marek Miller is a media specialist from Poland, freelancer and project manager in Polskapresse.

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