Society of Editors conference: Blaming just the internet for circulation decline is lazy

At the Society of Editors conference, Derek Tucker, the soon-to-retire editor of the Press and Journal in Aberdeen, argued that the regional press had made a mess of online because ‘no other industry would sell what it made one way, but give it away in another.’

He argued that the relatively strong sales performance of his titles in Aberdeen was down in part to the fact that they  restrict the amount of content which goes online, along with the time that it goes online. He said circulation decline was greater on titles where the amount of content online was greater.

It’s a discussion Tucker has clearly had many times before, because he preempted the usual response of ‘if we’re not online, someone else will be’ by arguing that nobody covers news in his part of Scotland as well as the P&J. In his words, citizen journalists and bloggers aren’t on courts bench or in the football press conferences.

There were some nods at this. But to go along with the argument is to misunderstand the different ways in which people use news in print and online. Rivals online – be it the BBC or a hyperlocal site – don’t need to cover as much news as a newspaper does, they just need to provide enough to fulfil the need of the user.

In print, the reader buys a bundle of content, only some of which will appeal to them. Trial and error tells us the content people want in that mix. Online, they can seek out just what they want. Four ‘local’ stories on the BBC site can leave a reader feeling they know all they need to know.  In that scenario, is it the internet that might put off a reader buying the local newspaper, or the fact the local newspaper is online? I’m inclined to think that if it is either, it’s the former.

Darren Thwaites, the editor of the Teesside Gazette (and someone I’m currently working with on a number of projects) cited the Liverpool ECHO as a newspaper which is currently experiencing remarkable sales performance. Working also with the Liverpool ECHO web team, I know this isn’t at the expense of online activity.

One example certainly doesn’t prove a trend – and the same is also true for Tucker’s P&J. Blaming online as a major factor in circulation decline is very easy. Saying newspapers got it wrong by putting content online for free is easy. Suggesting a solution once you understand the different way people use content in print and online is much harder.

Industry analyst Jim Chisolm argued he’s yet to see any concrete proof of the internet being to blame for circulation decline. This prompted shakes of the head from some editors in the audience. But I’d argue that the industry should instead focus on the some of the changes to circulation it can control.

Thwaites pointed to the closure of newsagents as being one reason why people aren’t buying so many newspapers. One circulation manager I spoke to a while ago said this was the biggest challenge the industry faces as it can suddenly create holes in circulation areas. The newsagent I used to work for shifted around 300 copies of the Lancashire Evening Post every night through delivery. If he was to close, that’s quite a circulation hit for the Post to deal with. Improving subscriptions – something Thwaites said was going well in Teesside – is one solution, especially in areas where the newsagent is no longer present.

Martin Clarke, in charge of the Daily Mail website, says their research suggests people who engage with the website are more likely to buy the newspaper as a result. I’ve no idea of the exact statistics behind this statement, but surely it has as much weight as the finger-in-the-air ‘it’s the web wot’s killing us’ stance of others.  And that’s before we even talk about the fact it is possible to make money online – but you have to take risks to do so.

There are many other factors which can contribute to the rise or fall of a newspaper’s circulation performance. The P&J’s somewhat rural location probably helps them, although Tucker didn’t seem to take this point on board. The success or otherwise of a football team can have a big impact too.

But surely we’re better off focusing on the things we can control – such as making it easier to get hold of a copy of the newspaper – rather than trying to state as fact the unproven impact of the internet on circulation figures.

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2 comments

  1. “The success or otherwise of a football team can have a big impact too.” – clearly not an issue for the P&J for quite some time! The Dons have been impersonating a football team for (almost) as long as I can remember.

    In all seriousness, and speaking as someone born and brought up in Aberdeen, I would say the P&J is pretty different to just about any other local or regional paper I’ve seen elsewhere in the UK, so it’s quite difficult to extrapolate any lessons learned from its continuing success.

    It’s so far from Edinburgh, let alone Westminster, that I’d argue its readership has certain interests barely catered for elsewhere, most notably the oil industry, fishing, farming and golf. It offers de facto ‘national’ coverage of these topics, which I’d suggest encourages readers to take the P&J either instead of, or as well as, a Scottish or UK daily.

    Another point to remember about the P&J is that has an extraordinary amount of different regional editions. At one time there were 12 (not sure how many there are today) as it stretched from Perthshire in the south to Shetland in the very far north. During a summer I spent in Shetland working for the BBC, I was surprised at how many people read the P&J, even though only a couple of pages were really relevant to them. I suppose it was because there was nothing else aimed at them on a daily basis.

    Therefore, I’d say that many of these fairly remote rural areas across the north of Scotland and the islands would be perfect for hyperlocal sites (such as the existing Gurn From Nurn) who could cover the patch better than the P&J, but there aren’t many around so far. Maybe sluggish rural broadband hasn’t helped that. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the nascent STV Local has.

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