When a hyperlocal site can have a bigger audience than a century-old newspaper, do you still think it’s wrong to ‘give away’ content for free?

The world’s most serialised book* has been given a fresh outing this week to mark the fact it has been re-released. What Do You We Mean By Local? is a series of essays by local journalism figures expressing their views on where we’ve come from, where we are and where we are going.

There’s some fascinating stuff, including an article by Paul Robertson, ex-editor of the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle. I worked with Paul for about three years and in that time his newsroom made great strides to embrace digital, especially social media, which Paul led from the front with.

One line stood out though – and it’s not so much what was said, so much as the way it was said, as though accepted fact:

“The utter madness of uploading all content online for free continued as the attempts to monetise websites proved only moderately successful.”

If I talk to digital colleagues outside of our industry, they are agog that journalists still have the ‘free folly’ debate. My concern is the fact it’s becoming less of a debate, more accepted wisdom that the industry was wrong to give away content online. That’s what stood out in Paul’s article. It was less statement of opinion, more throwaway obvious statement of fact.

And with the challenges facing print as obvious now as they were two years ago, it feels as though it’s become assumed fact that giving content away for free is a bad thing. That’s certainly the argument Robin Burgess, owner of Cumbrian Newspapers, put forward at the Society of Editors conference in April:

“For some time I have thought that we can’t continue giving our content away. The reader must pay.”

He backed his argument up with slides which showed circulation at his titles heading south rapidly while digital audiences grew.

And then there is the owner of the Cleethorpes Chronicle, a proper independent newspaper success story, celebrating the fifth anniversary of his paper by having a go at online.

Nigel Lowther said: “I feel very strongly about this and I get quite frustrated – why should we put all our stories online, which take a lot of effort and a lot of journalistic resources, for free?”

The latter two quotes are built around the idea that because it costs money to generate content, people should pay for it. That’s a comforting view for journalists to hold, but it’s also a blinkered one. It ignores everything that has gone on around us over the last decade. Just because we can attach a value to what we produce doesn’t mean the audience we want to appeal to feels the same.

But what Paul and Robin don’t deal with is what would have happened if we hadn’t put our content online free. Lets imagine what would have happened if, back when the internet was in its infancy, regional newspapers had decided not to get involved with websites, or to only provide a very basic level of news, with the principle aim of driving people buy the newspaper.

Here’s what would have happened: The BBC would have done what it has done, but hoovered up more of the audience, even without having to provide extra content. Hyperlocal websites would probably be more abundant, and there would probably be more business-headed local news websites out there.

The arrival of the internet didn’t lead to people expecting their local news for free. That ship sailed in the 1980s when free newspapers were born. The internet simply made it possible for people to pick and choose the content they consume, rather than receiving everything we thought they wanted. If we’d not bothered putting it online, they simply would have gone elsewhere, or managed without.

Put another way, what if a website sets up in Cleethorpes, builds an audience and offers advertising at a rate which reflects the fact they don’t need to pay for a printing press?

I spent five minutes looking at Hitwise data. It took me two minutes to find two examples of hyperlocal websites which attract a greater number of visitors than the long-established print titles in the area. That’s what you get for giving digital a minimum service in the hope you’ll prop up print. Luckily, they’re not titles I work with at Trinity Mirror – they’re elsewhere.

I found a (non Trinity Mirror) website which has covered a large football team for over 100 years – or at least the newspaper had. It has four ‘fan’ sites attracting more traffic each week than it does for all of its content. And that’s despite putting the content from print online, with some bells and whistles. I’d argue the quality of the content on those rival sites isn’t a patch on the ‘professional’ news site, but the numbers don’t lie.

That sums up the challenge we face. Describing the ‘uploading of all content’ as madness is only true if you are criticising the assumption which prevailed for a long time that there was nothing wrong with the content, just the method of distribution.

Replicating the print product online exactly is madness – because the digital audience wants something different.  Not looking at digital data and letting it influence the news agenda in the newsroom because you believe journalists know what the audience want is madness. Assuming that just because people tell you they don’t buy the paper because they read it online means they’re reading your content exactly the same way online as in print is madness.

Making all of your content available on the platform the audience is clearly saying it prefers isn’t madness at all – it’s the very bare minimum you can do to help your brand survive in this new world. When Johnston Press put their Northumberland websites behind a paywall, The Journal – one of the websites I work with – enjoyed a healthy traffic boost. Not exactly the desired result.

When Northcliffe – as it was then – experimented with a ‘stick it all on’ approach in one newsroom and ‘three pars and a buy the paper reference’ in another, it had no impact on sales of the paper in either centre. The most successful websites I work with are the ones which also enjoy strong sales performances – because they are producing content which engages audiences across print and online. As a result, their brands are read daily by more people than ever before.

I’m not saying people won’t pay for content – they will, if it’s indispensable enough to warrant paying for. But  I don’t think general local news fits into that category. 

Pretending that content being free online is the big problem is comforting for us as journalists, but it’s also wrong. The challenge is turn that audience into revenue. But first, we must ensure we’re giving that audience what they want, because if we don’t, they’ll get it somewhere else. 

In other words, we respect the audience as King, or we try and be King Canute. One is challenging, the other is comforting. Only one gives a future, so we should stop talking about the other … and certainly stop presenting as done-and-dusted fact that we could have done anything other than offer free news online. 

* might not be true – but how many other books get chapters serialised in three different places at the same time?

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12 comments

  1. I’d love to debate this subject properly over a pint and hot curry! But in the box that I’m currently dealing with, let me be brief: Your question-headline: WHEN A HYPERLOCAL SITE CAN HAVE A BIGGER AUDIENCE THAN A CENTURY-OLD NEWSPAPER, DO YOU STILL THINK IT’S WRONG TO ‘GIVE AWAY’ CONTENT FOR FREE? Answer: (IMO) Yes, it is wrong (not for hyperlocal, independent, voluntary sites, but for commercial, story gathering staff-paid organisations like newspapers), UNLESS (note my caps for emphasis) the website is washing its face financially on ads alone. And I don’t mean it’s wrong to give anything away – summaries, short web-written pieces, stories everyone else has already got – fine. But the mass of content, the exclusives, the valuable analysis and opinions? Yes, I think it has been and continues to be a mistake. Interestingly, some of TM’s latest and most impressive online expansions – tablets in Birmingham, Liverpool, et al – charge for their content! But as I say, best re-debated at length over hot, hot curry. ;-))

    1. Everything is better discussed over a curry! On this, I’d agree with you if I thought we COULD charge for the content. What hyperlocal sites, forums, blogs etc have demonstrated is that people don’t differentiate between content from ‘professional’ (I’d probably say salaried instead) journalists and those providing news for other reasons – be it community pride, building up a student portfolio, or just exchanging information in a forum. Our argument has to be much stronger than ‘we’re the experts at this’.

      That’s what we’re trying to achieve with Business Daily – and a couple of other projects in the pipeline. Creating something new, not available elsewhere in the same format and packaged in a way which people feel they should pay for.

      You and I – and most journalists – know most papers cover their area in far more depth than the local BBC station. Yet you’ll still find people who say they get all the news they need from the BBC about their area.

      If you stack websites against print revenues, people will always be disappointed. If you start off with a blank sheet of paper and say ‘how do I make enough money to pay for the journalism’ it suddenly becomes much more interesting. But it’s a very different world to the newsrooms of old, and that’s the challenge.
      Always up for a curry…. but wary of cockroaches!

  2. Pingback: Phil Whomes

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