The morning after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Matt Kelly ducked into a coffee shop on a graffiti-lined street in the trendy East London neighbourhood of Shoreditch.
The clientele lining up for their lattes, normally silent and aloof, had been drawn into an animated discussion about the vote and its consequences. The mostly 20- and 30-somethings, some from a variety of technology startups clustered nearby, seemed united in their dismay over the results.
“It kind of dawned on me: Here was an audience that was so clearly identifiable and passionate,” said Kelly, a longtime British newspaper executive who is now chief content officer of Archant, a large British newspaper group. “If there ever was a time for launching a new newspaper, this is it.”
Less than two weeks later, in early July, The New European, a weekly print newspaper, hit newsstands nationwide. The paper, conceived as a finite, monthlong experiment, is now going into its 11th week after proving a surprisingly profitable hit with readers.
The New European, published by Archant, is part of a broad experimentation taking place in print.
As publishers large and small struggle at a time of rapid digital transition, print is a costly challenge for the industry. In recent years, many large publishers have opted to scale back or exit print altogether. Others have tried to bolster its allure by packaging print with digital offerings, or using print to showcase exclusive content.
Some midsize publishers have focused on portfolios of smaller-scale titles that can be produced using the same infrastructure of presses, distribution and marketing networks. Those economies of scale can significantly reduce the marginal costs—and the risks—of developing new print products.
Archant had the size and distribution network—it is Britain’s fifth-largest regional newspaper publisher by revenue and by circulation—and staff.
So it decided to experiment with what it calls pop-up publishing.
“It’s a very encouraging demonstration that even in print, a smart publisher can pivot and say, ‘We’re going to try something different,’” said Jane Singer, a professor of journalism and innovation at City University London.
By keeping its startup costs low and its ambitions modest, The New European has thus far managed to avoid the fate of some prominent failures in the British newspaper market.
Trinity Mirror, one of Britain’s largest media groups, began an aggressive marketing campaign when The New Day came out this year. But the print-only paper never approached the 200,000 daily readers it sought, and it ceased publication after just 10 weeks.
The CN Group, a regional publisher, tried something similar, but that also folded, having lasted barely a month.
Both experiments, aimed at general-interest audiences, failed to capture enough demand from readers and advertisers to justify their publishers’ relatively modest initial investments.
By contrast, The New European was conceived as a niche publication. The publisher targeted the 48 percent of Britons who voted on June 23 to stay in the European Union — a potential audience that included about 16 million like-minded readers. Since it was meant to be short-lived, Archant avoided spending huge sums on market research or publicity campaigns.
“We never set out to actually create a long-term brand,” said Jeff Henry, Archant’s chief executive. “The way we structured it was to make money on a four-week run.”
The first edition, priced at 2 pounds ($2.65), sold more than 40,000 copies in Britain and generated significant social media attention as readers rushed to share images of their papers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The New European’s compact format, bold typography and photo-heavy layout are a deliberate effort to replicate the look and feel of popular Continental newspapers like the French daily Libération and Die Tageszeitung in Germany.
Its front pages promote meaty essays by well-known British intellectuals, politicians and business leaders. The articles themselves are mixed with cartoons, infographics and lighter features on European sports, travel and culture.
Each week, the back page—Page 48—is devoted to Europhile quizzes and trivia. One issue included “48 Farage Facts,” a catalog of awkward anecdotes and quotes from Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-leave U.K. Independence Party.
Archant’s business plan for the newspaper is driven principally by cover sales. In the last few weeks, it has extended its newsstand presence to Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
While the company hopes that broader reach will increase The New European’s appeal to advertisers, the publication’s open-ended future—Archant commits to only four issues at a time — has made it a difficult sell with some companies interested in longer campaigns.
In late August, Archant also experimented with an online auction for some of its premium ad space. But while more than 60 British and European companies participated, the bidding failed to generate significant additional revenue, the company said.
Industry watchers have nevertheless been encouraged by The New European’s staying power.
“The New European has absolutely shown a way forward for print publishers to sample whether a new product works,” said Steve Dyson, a media consultant in Birmingham. Dyson said he could envision successful pop-up titles linked to popular political or social movements, or major sporting events like last month’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
He and others also pointed to the success of The National, a Scottish newspaper started by Newsquest, a Gannett subsidiary, after Scotland’s failed 2014 referendum on independence from Britain.
That publication was also planned as a short-term, print-only project produced by staff members of another Newsquest paper, the Glasgow-based Sunday Herald.
Its fervently pro-independence stance found an audience of as many as 60,000 daily readers, although that number has since dwindled to around 15,000. Still, subscription and newsstand sales are enough to sustain a small dedicated staff as well as a website that, in addition to Scottish politics, offers sports, culture and international news.
The success of The New European suggests that, for all the industry’s evangelizing about the need to embrace a digital future, publishers have yet to exhaust the possibilities of print.
“It’s very counterintuitive, but print can sometimes be more agile than digital,” Kelly said. “If you are a newspaper business and already have a distribution mechanism and a team of designers, it is actually a very simple process, whereas if you want to do a bespoke digital product, that is much more involved.”
Moreover, “print is a very visible format,” Kelly said. “You can’t go around London with your laptop open and say, ‘Look at me, I’m reading The New European.’”
So far, The New European, like the rest of Britain’s newspaper industry, has managed to ride a wave of demand for news about the so-called Brexit, which could fade in the coming months as the initial shock of the vote wears off.
“Brexit has the risk of becoming extremely boring in reality,” said Nick Tjaardstra, a deputy director of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in Frankfurt, Germany.
Negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union could drag on for years, Tjaardstra noted, and to remain relevant to its niche audience, The New European would eventually need to broaden its coverage to include other topics of interest.
That is, if it continues at all.
Kelly insists that Archant holds “no sort of sentimental attachment” to The New European as a brand.
“It needs to earn its keep,” he said. “The whole point of pop-up is that you are prepared to kill the product.”
©2016/The New York Times