Time for the regional press to ignore the relentless critics and listen more to critical friends?

What is wrong with Roy Greenslade at the moment? If he’s not apologising to The Sun, The Times or for rather odd comments which the Jewish Chronicle raised objections to, he’s making wild and rash statements about the regional press.

I know a lot of people don’t like Greenslade’s blog. Generally, I do like it, and having spent a couple of hours in the company of Greenslade when he visited The Birmingham Post and Mail’s Fort Dunlop newsroom, I came to the conclusion he was someone who didn’t jump into comment without considering all sides first.

But in recent weeks, it’s been barbed jibe after barbed jibe at the regional press. First there was the design critique of the Lancashire Telegraph based on a few small jpgs posted on the Telegraph’s website, then his sudden support for council newspapers (more on that in another post). Then, today, Greenslade jumped on a column written by Sean Dooley about the state of the regional press.

In it, Dooley claimed:

“Few readers are seeing any mitigating circumstances as their cherished local papers are printed earlier and earlier, further and further away from home, carrying less and less news of any relevance to their communities.”

Dooley was until 2005, the editor of the Stoke Sentinel. He is now a media consultant. Yep, an ex-editor who suddenly has worked out everything that is wrong with the industry. Who’d have thunk?

It’s the usual stuff about earlier deadlines and being printed further away making papers less relevent to the communities they serve. It’s quite simplistic, actually, and doesn’t address the fact that many newspapers see sales lifts when they switch to overnight. It also doesn’t address the changing way people wish to use their newspapers, nor does it look at the number of papers which see temporary sales boosts on a regular basis when they get big stories first.

But that’s all to be expected from an ex editor, I guess. And, indeed, from the Guardian, which used to be quite good at promoting innovation in regional media, but has in recent times been relentlessly negative.

However, this is the bit from Greenslade’s blog which baffles me, suddenly switching from print to online matters:

What’s that? They get plenty of readers online. They do? Really? On the basis of my visit to The Sentinel’s site today, I wonder if that knee-jerk claim is true.

I don’t have any figures, but I noted the dearth of comments. There is very little reader participation, a clear indication – in my humble view – of a lack of traffic.

Examples from today’s news page: main news story, one comment; second news story, two comments; third news story, no comments. Next seven news stories, just two comments between them.

Here’s my gripe: Greenslade has a reputation as a respected media commentator and with that reputation surely comes a responsibility. Part of that responsibility surely is to avoid hiding behind phrases like ‘I don’t have any figures but….’

The audience figures for the Stoke Sentinel are hardly state secrets. It took me two minutes to find them on Holdthefrontpage. In the August figures, the Sentinel website posted 334,850 monthly unique users, up about 14%. So yes, they are doing very well online.

As for the suggestion that the number of comments represents the size of the audience – well, what can you say. Even the newest blogger knows that the number of comments never reflects the number of readers. (note: I wrote posts instead of readers here last night.) It’s as daft as looking at the letters page in print and going ‘ahhh, five letters today – must be just five readers then.’

Had Greenslade done his research, the following conclusion wouldn’t be possible:

So, alongside the decline in print, there is no parallel digital take-off. Part of the reason, surely, is to be found in Dooley’s comment.

There just isn’t enough relevant news, not enough genuinely important information, to attract readers to either platform. That’s the real story of today’s local and regional newspaper publishing “industry”.

14% growth in six months. Hundreds of thousands of people logging on every month. The facts tell a different story, and the facts weren’t hard to find. In fact, the ABCes of almost every regional newspaper website suggests they do have the information which keeps on bringing people back time and again.

The real story of the regional news industry is that it faces many challenges but there are plenty of examples of people getting it right. Getting it right all the time is another thing.

As I said, I like Greenslade’s blog. I just think it’s a massive shame that he can’t be critical friend of the industry, rather than just a critic at all costs. What’s that saying about not letting the facts get in the way?

4 comments

  1. Agree 100 per cent with your argument but websites and papers have to have relevant news to attract readers. Our local weekly here has had the heart ripped out of it because of its move out of town — first to Manchester and then to Chadderton. None of the staff live or, for some time have worked in the area, and sadly it shows.

    The standard of what was until very recently a very vibrant weekly paper has floored and there is no sense of it understanding the community it serves. It’s tried a few Save Our….campaigns to try to spark local passion and these have been so far off the mark and back up with such lazy, uniformed journalism that thy have been counter productive. Online or offline you have to have some empathy with your readers. Local knowledge is a useful foundation block too.

    1. Hi Tony. Thanks for the comment. I agree, local knowledge is essential. That said, I do think it’s possible to run an effective local weekly without having that physical base in the town. After all, many strong hyperlocal sites don’t have a shop front, but are around town a lot. The problem comes if the reporters can’t get out onto patch. In fairness to the paper you referenced, the Save our campaigns appear to be working – they’ve managed to get the markets decision changed!

  2. I read Dooley’s piece the other week, I thought it was boring. There was nothing new, no new research and no new figures. It just said everything we’ve seen said everywhere else – very poor.

    It was all doom and gloom, when actually there’s some really interesting and innovative things happening. If we all stood around shoe-gazing and working ourselves into a ‘things aren’t like they used to be frenzy’ we’d never get our editions out and websites updated. Then we’d really be in the shit.

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