Stop offering free content, Sorrell warns press execs

The head of one of the world's biggest advertising companies has warned regional newspaper executives not to give their content away for free.

WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell told the Newspaper Society Home Truths conference this week that he has "always had a problem with free content".

"I think media owners do not charge enough for content," he said. "I remember going up to see the Glasgow Herald in the early '90s. It was one of the first newspapers to charge for online content.

"I asked the editor why he did that and he explained: ‘If there are Glaswegians in Buenos Aires, they are willing to pay for the Glasgow Herald online rather than wait for the banana boat to deliver it.'

"I think if the consumer values the content, you should charge him or her for it," Sorrell added.

The advertising company chief also warned newspaper bosses that they would not be able to change quickly enough to adapt to the internet.

"The people running traditional companies do not move rapidly enough," he said. "It is impossible to change a company rapidly enough in this era of technological change."

Sorrell predicted that something significantly better than Google will come along before many people realised.

"Given that there are 1.5 billion people in China, there has got to be five or six people as clever as [Google founders] Sergey Brin and Larry Page," he said.

"There are ex-Stanford graduates who will come up with a form of technology that will make what we see today obsolete."

Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler countered Sorrell's argument that the traditional media were unprepared for the future. He said he believed that local newspaper publishers were completely capable of keeping abreast of the changes.

Bowdler also pointed to the effectiveness of local newspapers and their multiple platforms such as freesheets, websites and digital editions, which "provide a communications mix which is unrivalled in the level of local market access which is achieved".

Predicting a rosy future for the regional press, he added: "Local newspapers will continue to have a central place in the local media and communications mix for years to come, but only as one element in a broader range of channels which will include a variety of print and digital publications, all available from the local newspaper publisher."

Bowdler said he believed the difficult trading conditions plaguing the regional press were merely cyclical rather than structural.

"At Johnston Press we monitor our local market shares in print as well as online and we have seen no evidence of any significant migration," he said. "The fact that the decline in recruitment volumes started in the Southeast and took some months to reach the many parts of the North of England and Scotland does not suggest structural change."

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