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Feb. 1, 2021, 11:44 a.m.

Brexit’s done, but anti-Brexit paper The New European is just getting started

One of the most unexpectedly successful newspaper launches of the past decade shows there’s a little life left in print — with the right approach and reasonable expectations.

On November 8, 1979, four days after 52 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran, ABC News decided to launch a new late-night program devoted to the story. The crisis eventually passed, but the show — rebranded as Nightline — has outlived it by more than four decades.

The New European is another example of a news product created for a very specific story and moment. The weekly newspaper hit the streets just two weeks after the U.K.’s tumultuous Brexit vote in 2016. With many Remainers stunned at the result — and angry at newspapers like the Daily Mail and The Sun who’d been cheerleaders for Brexit — The New European was meant to be a new and proudly pro-EU voice. It was also meant to be a temporary one; owner Archant only committed to printing four issues, extending its life week by week after that.

But the paper was profitable by week three and seemed to have hit on a sustainable formula. Four and a half years later, Brexit is now officially in the past tense, but The New European aims to outlive it.

This morning it was announced that Archant has sold The New European to its management and a new group of investors, with some big names attached. Among the buyers: former New York Times CEO and BBC director general Mark Thompson, former Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, and former Irish press executive Gavin O’Reilly. Here’s Barber’s old paper:

Matt Kelly, the former head of content at Archant who launched the New European following the 2016 EU referendum, will majority own and lead the title after raising about £750,000, according to people familiar with the process…

The New European has a combined weekly print and online circulation of around 20,000, with contributors such as the author Bonnie Greer, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, and the Booker prize-winner Howard Jacobson. Its editor-at-large is Alastair Campbell, the former communications director for Tony Blair in Downing Street.

Since its launch, The New European has broken even for the struggling Norwich-based newspaper and magazine group Archant. But Archant’s new private equity owners Rcapital Partners decided to shed the title as part of a restructuring. The total sale price was not disclosed.

Mr Kelly and his 10 investors are banking on The New European’s potential to find a market of readers who do not feel at home with rival news periodicals such as the centre-left New Statesman and centre-right Spectator. Each investor put in between £50,000 and £100,000, according to one person familiar with the process.

The best piece is by Amol Rajan at the BBC, who had the scoop; he notes that the paper currently has about 10,000 subscribers and sells 7,000 copies at newsstands. (A copy sells for £3.) Here’s an interview on Sky News this morning with O’Reilly, who’ll be the paper’s executive chairman (and who, as a native of Dublin, serves as a masthead reminder of the giant free-trade zone just across the Irish Sea). He says the new owners have a “pretty aggressive investment plan” that includes “expansion across Europe, expansion of our digital and print products.”

I am decidedly not a print optimist. But if you wanted to launch a new print newspaper today, it’d probably look a lot like The New European.

First, it’d be weekly (or monthly!) rather than daily. Printing daily only highlights how much better digital is at distributing of-the-moment news; printing weekly optimizes for content with a little more shelf life and gives you better delivery options.

Second, it would be targeted at a very specific, very passionate niche audience and not be shy about taking its side. (It’s too late now, but I thought that an anti-Trump weekly print newspaper might have had a chance in the United States the past four years.) That passion is critical to both gaining subscribers and unlocking other brand-driven streams of revenue like events. It helps if your niche is, like The New European’s, is relatively well off.

Third, it’d be produced on the cheap. The New European’s production budget is just £6,500 an issue (about $8,900 American). As part of Archant, it could piggyback on its back-office operations, printing, and distribution. Its full-time staff is just three people.

And fourth, its ambitions would be realistic. To benefit from its niche audience’s passion, The New European must also accept the cap that niche imposes on its growth. One imagines Mark Thompson and Lionel Barber aren’t expecting their investments here to generate ungodly intergenerational wealth. Tech investors chase scale; outlets like The New European know their scale will always be modest.

Those aren’t entirely unfamiliar approaches to the newspaper business. They’re just more like the newspapering of the 19th century than the 20th. Back then, cities had lots of papers that each had clear points of view, targeted niche demographic audiences, and relied heavily on aggregation and other cheap sources of content. In the 1900s, technology and economics squeezed all the cacophony of those papers into monopoly dailies that were big, ambitious, profitable — and often too boring to inspire much passion in their audiences. The New European is riding that back-to-the-future wave.

Photo of a March 2019 anti-Brexit rally in London by Sandro Cenni.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2021, 11:44 a.m.
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