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The newspaper industry is examining a major advertising push to improve the way it is viewed by the British public and highlight the positive “human” impact that titles from The Daily Mail to The Guardian have on society.

Tracy De Groose, the new executive chair of Newsworks, the marketing body for UK newspapers, identifies an urgent need “to change our narrative” away from “declining print circulation” and focus on the “role in society” that papers play, in both digital and physical formats.

Speaking to The Drum, De Groose says the newspaper industry must reach out to the British public with a B2C-focused strategy. A television-led advertising campaign “would be a great thing”, she says.

The former UK and Ireland chief executive of the giant Dentsu Aegis Network media conglomerate claims the press industry has underspent on its collective reputation. “If I put my marketing hat on, we haven’t perhaps invested as much as we should have done in selling ourselves.”

She believes that the opportunity for newspapers is in “humanising” its industry branding. “Do I feel there’s a role to play bringing the human side of news to the fore? Absolutely!” she says. “From my mind, the critical point is about the people reading and the impact the news brands have on our lives.”

A marketing push would look to capitalise on the recent successful campaigning record of the UK press. Newsworks, which is owned by the News Media Association publishing body, cites a range of examples of papers “driving change for good”, including The Sun’s work in saving women’s refuges, a Mirror campaign to improve organ donation, The Mail’s work in reducing plastic waste, and The Guardian’s intervention on behalf of victims of the Windrush scandal.

De Groose thinks papers should humanise “the people who sit behind” the journalism as well as those impacted by it. “It’s when you understand those personal stories and journeys you really connect and feel very proud of our industry.”

Newspapers' perception problem

Changing the public perception of the UK press is not a simple task. The negative impact of the phone-hacking scandal and the ensuing Leveson inquiry lingers on, seven years after the closure of the News of the World. High-profile critics such as Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Max Mosley – recently dubbed the “Priapic Three” by former Mail editor Paul Dacre – keep alive the idea that the press is need of regulatory reform and can’t be trusted.

And the recent personal spat between Dacre and the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has hardly contributed to the idea of an industry united in its sense of mission.

But De Groose argues that the range of voice in British news is an asset. “We have very strong diverse brands and – whether you love them or loathe them – that diversity is important and we need to hold on to that. That is a huge strength of the UK news portfolio.”

She believes that a new generation of digitally-aware business leaders is transforming the financial outlook of UK news publishing, naming Nick Hugh (chief executive, Telegraph Media Group), David Pemsel (chief executive, Guardian Media Group) and David Dinsmore (chief executive, News UK). “They are younger, they get digital, they are still ambitious and want to compete but they can still find ways to bring the industry together as a collective.”

It’s thanks to such leadership, that the UK news industry has grown its reach to a point where De Groose can claim: “More people read news in a week (in the UK) than go onto Google.”

Even so, that message is not necessarily getting through to the people who matter, notably those in the media agency world where De Groose has been such an influential figure. “News is growing, more people are reading online and that’s only a good thing – and yet the industry gets beaten up for its declining print circulation.” She notes that “younger media planners and buyers are not always big consumers of TV, or news brands or radio – I wonder how that influences things”.

National press brands have recently passed a number of significant milestones which suggest that they can – despite the doomsday predictions of the past – have a healthy future as digital publishers. The Guardian, which supports an open publishing model through membership payments and donations as well as advertising, revealed this month that more than a million people have made a financial contribution to its journalism in the past three years. The Telegraph has reached its target of 3 million registered users and the Times and Sunday Times have chalked up 500,000 subscribers.

Despite the Dacre-Rusbridger animosity and the almost diametrically-opposed editorial standpoints of the papers they used to edit, the UK news industry is working more closely together commercially. Witness its multi-format audience measurement platform PAMCo, and its Ozone Project to allow advertisers to buy space across the websites of diverse news titles.

But De Groose believes that the structuring of many media agencies, with separate teams managing print media and the vast morass of digital media, mean that multi-platform news brands are not getting due recognition for the engagement levels they generate. She points to Newsworks econometric modelling which points to “£3bn profit being left on the table” by ad clients who are undermining the effectiveness of campaigns by under-investing in news brands.

Battling back against the doomsayers

While De Groose believes the UK news sector could learn from the success of the television industry body Thinkbox, which she says “batted back the narrative around the death of TV”, she claims that it is already a world leader in the global newspaper industry. “No other country is collaborating as much as the UK.”

In America, the hostility to the news media of Donald Trump has lifted subscriber numbers for quality titles including the New York Times and Washington Post. Both papers have sought to maximise this ‘Trump bump’ with campaigns portraying themselves as refuges of truth.

De Groose describes subscriptions as “the ultimate form of engagement”. She claims that “we are at a crossroads with free content anywhere at any time and…are potentially moving into an era where we don’t have time for that and want curated experiences”. But she also believes that UK publishers would have less success with the fake news antidote messages of the NYT (slogan “The Truth is Hard…” and the Washington Post (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”).

“Everyone is talking about how, in a world of fake news, real news is important, that’s just a generic narrative,” she says.

“There’s a simple shift I can help with. the narrative has been about the formats and the supply, not the B2C narrative which is about its role in society and its relationship with its readers.”

The Newsworks team is a little over 20-strong. But De Groose says she took her job as a “neutral cheerleader” for news publishers because an industry of 90,000 has the potential to shape society. “I think the impact could be more significant in this role than when I was running a team of 4,000 at Dentsu,” she says. “I think this is the best brand job in the UK at the moment.”

If she can be successful in humanising the public image of news and in bringing the industry to more collaborative working, the old story of British journalism in inexorable financial decline might be turned on its head.

“I think there is an opportunity to grow readership and readership revenues in the UK,” she says. ‘I think a B2C campaign has a role to play in that – it would be really good for advertisers to see the industry investing in audiences and readers.”

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell