Goodbye mX – Without paying readers you were always going to be first to go

tim burrowes landscapeThe last edition of mX will be published at lunchtime. Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes is sad to see it go.

Australia doesn’t have many national daily newspaper brands.

After today, with the closure of mX, it will only have two.

Just like the movie cop who inevitably gets shot on the last day before he retires – it means the Sydney edition of mX won’t celebrate its tenth anniversary, which would have been in three weeks’ time. 

The thing that made mX particularly vulnerable was that it was entirely ad-funded.

And where advertising sentiment may have turned against newspapers, those with a cover price have at least been able to put it up. (I suspect it won’t be long until my currently $2.50 Sydney Morning Herald overtakes the cost of my $3 daily coffee.)

It may well turn out that free daily commuter papers were the last big global newspaper trend.

It’s one that kicked off globally about 20 years ago as publishers began to notice that a free Swedish newspaper, Metro, was having phenomenal success. The franchise – and copycats – swept the world.

I was writing about the media in the UK, when Metro broke through.

Despite the same title, Metro was unrelated to the Swedish title that inspired it. It’s owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust, an organisation whose current online rivals would complain has never been reluctant to steal an idea, or story.

But a driver of Metro’s success – which continues today – was a classic case study in how to fend off disruption by disrupting yourself.

Despite being part of a stable that included giant paid-for papers like the Daily Mail, Evening Standard and Mail On Sunday, Metro was based in separate offices on the other side of London from its headquarters. It had completely separate editorial and commercial teams from its sister titles, and was nimble.

But the other secret of its commercial success was actually trade marketing. Strategy agency Naked Communications helped the commercial team build up a superb sales proposition. They overcame industry assumptions that free papers deserved a discount on advertising prices.

Instead, they created the proposition that the newspaper’s audience were “urbanites” – hard-to-reach, cashed-up young professionals earning good wages.

They used to take media buyers down to Waterloo railway station to watch readers snatching copies, then persuaded advertisers to pay a premium to reach them.

As a result the paper was highly profitable.

Here in Australia, mX has felt less loved than that by News Corp, particularly after it easily saw off its Fairfax competitor Melbourne Express, which had launched first in 2001. Incidentally, if you ever wondered why it was called mX, you might conclude that it sounded quite similar to Melbourne Express.

The existence of mX in Melbourne also hastened the end of the Herald Sun’s afternoon edition, which probably didn’t endear it internally. However, the model worked, and it launched in Sydney in 2005 and Brisbane in 2007.

The relative editorial budgets were small. The journos were often inexperienced, even if it was a stepping stone on to bigger jobs within the News Corp empire.

madonna mXI still look back with amusement and bemusement on the time about five years ago that they splashed with the news that one of their journalists had been at another table in the same restaurant as Madonna who apparently liked her shorts. At the time we wondered if it was the worst front page story ever produced by an Australian daily metro masthead. I still do.

For a long time there was a loyal audience for celeb gossip, slightly stalky letters about fellow commuters people fancied, Eric The Circle and idiotic overheard conversations. Plus sudoku of course.

But the newspaper’s place as a cog within the bigger News Corp empire always made it vulnerable.

When it comes to the Murdoch family and its newspapers, the reasons for investing them has not always been strictly rational. The overnight news that Rupert Murdoch has taken a small step back from the empire is one more drumbeat about the future of the company’s newspapers.

Unlike its paid for stablemates, mX didn’t seem to have a strong internal power base, even if it was beloved of PR agencies looking to place a press release about a survey.

I suspect there was nobody at the top table internally to argue the importance for the stable of continuing to build newspaper reading habits amongst Gen Y.

That meant that when the ads stopped flowing, there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre.

Of course, the title has been in some trouble for a while. When the News Corp financial figures for 2013 were leaked, it wasn’t a pretty picture for mX. Profits for mX for the year had fallen from more than $7m to $3m. Revenue had fallen from $25m to $21m.

I’m sure mX has since moved to loss. With insufficient positive sentiment from marketers and the media agency world, there wasn’t much hope of turning round the trends – despite attempts to keep it relevant via a decent native advertising led app which didn’t get much time to work, and interesting opportunities for advertisers you might not have got in a paid-for.

But of course, it would have only been delaying the inevitable. A couple of years ago most people on train carriages were reading mX. Now most people are on mobile devices. Advertisers know that.

mX had a younger audience than most newspapers, so was always going to experience those behaviour changes first and most dramatically.

On Monday, there are going to be a lot of sad sudoku fans.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

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