1. Yesterday, newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror announced it was closing People.co.uk just short of three months after its launch. But why?
The company, which publishes three red-top tabloid papers, the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People, launched People.co.uk as a standalone digital project in November 2013, with the aim of building an audience through fun, entertaining stories - very much outside the usual confines of a UK newspaper structure.
One insider described it to Guardian.co.uk at the time as “BuzzFeed for adults”.
Sue Douglas - a former editor of the Sunday Express and a senior journalist at the Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Times - was brought in last year to look after both the People newspaper and website. (Earlier, Douglas had led an abortive attempt to buy the title).
Now, just shy of three months the website operation is to be closed, Douglas has departed and the website’s handful of full-time staff and several freelancers are looking for work elsewhere.
2. A lack of identity, focus and - ultimately - audience were key problems.
Trinity CEO Simon Fox - who joined from HMV in August 2012 - said yesterday: “These decisions are never easy to make and I would like to thank Sue and her team for all their hard work and creativity. The idea of the site was to bring the People brand to life across seven days but it simply hasn’t attracted the audience that we had hoped for.”
But is there more to it than that?
An insider who worked on the project and spoke to BuzzFeed on the condition of anonymity, says that the project was stifled by technological barriers and a lack of clear leadership. There was a general feeling among staff that the project wouldn’t last.
“Money was flung at it without any thought of what value was being got for it. Sue wanted us to do stuff that would involve development and building things and didn’t realise we couldn’t do that,” the former employee said.
“We were told to work from 8am-4pm or 12pm-8pm for no great purpose, we weren’t actually a news site, we weren’t hosted on Google News at any point and we didn’t turn around copy properly. I worked to about 60% of my full capacity there. Over Christmas freelancers were paid £280 a day to upload a few stories.”
The contributors were needed though: the site published no content from the People newspaper - they were published on Mirror.co.uk instead.
3. The plan was to build a business model based on native advertising, but it never fully materialised.
Douglas told advertising industry title Marketing Week in October that the site would be solely funded through native ads, but with a strange twist.
After a trial period, advertisers were asked to sign up to be on a list of brands that journalists could choose to associate with their stories. So, an article about beauty products would be accompanied by some form of advertising from a beauty brand, and so on. “I don’t ever want to do advertorial, we are never going to con the reader: it’s editorial, not an advert… It’s like we are taking on the role of the ad agency, PR agency or marketing agency,” Douglas said.
But there was a problem of definition and technology: “There was no structure in our CMS, it was just a list, there was no idea of who were were giving and what we were giving them. Advertisers pulled out because they had no idea of what we were,” the insider said.
It’s notable that no Sunday newspaper has successfully built a digital audience in its own right. For many years as editor of The Sunday Times, John Witherow complained about not having a website - leading to the creation of a standalone SundayTimes.co.uk. BuzzFeed understand that Witherow, now editor of The Times, is now over-seeing the re-merger of that site and TheTimes.co.uk.
4. Trinity is in the middle of a huge transformation in publishing culture and practices that’s still ongoing.
The Sunday People newspaper is read by 790,000 people every week on average - but just 91,000 of those readers, or 6.2%, are aged between 16 and 35. It had never had much of a digital presence, beyond an irreverent Twitter feed.
Since Fox joined the company, Trinity has launched Us Vs Th3m, a digital-only brand with a strong creative streak and audience growth that has outpaced its internal traffic targets, and latterly the data journalism site Ampp3d, which is more closely tied to the flagship Mirror brand.
This week, Trinity also promoted the two architects of those sites: Malcolm Coles was given the new role of general manager, Mirror Online - in addition to his existing role of digital product manager - and Martin Belam is now editor, new products. More investment and digital-focused hires are promised this year. There has been significant progress too in the quality of the company’s many regional papers’ digital activities.
There is no doubt that Trinity is taking the online publishing challenge seriously and changing its culture from a print-focused one to a multi-platform one. But People.co.uk won’t be along for the ride.