Twice in the last week, the issue of switching ‘evening’ newspapers to overnight printing has been cited as a reason for the decline of regional newspapers.
Chris Oakley – the former newspaper editor who built up two regional press companies which were then sold on – said as much while giving a keynote speech to the Society of Editors regional conference. According to HoldtheFrontPage:
Chris highlighted the move to overnight printing on most ‘evening’ titles as one of the causes of their decline, saying it had reduced their relevance to readers.
On the subject of the content of Oakley’s speech, Former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson asks the questions many people will have been asking, so I’ll not dwell on them here.
The second reference to overnight printing came from Steve himself, in his review of the Hereford Times, which went under the headline ‘Why large weeklies are beating big city dailies.’ Before I go on, I should point out that I worked closely with Steve when he was editor in Birmingham, and think his blog plays an important role in celebrating good things going on in the regional Press.
But his comments in his latest blog irritated me – not just because I disagree, but because I also think they emphasised a sentiment which is quite dangerous:
Nearly all ‘evening’ dailies have lost the vitality created by live news, with fast-shrinking readerships only too aware that they’ve watched, listened or read on the website most stories that can be found 24 hours later in the paper.
Whereas big weeklies, often in smaller towns or rural areas not covered very well by radio, TV or the internet, are still turned to by their readers as the only place to read all about the big story of the week.
The newspaper industry – and therefore the regional news industry – faces many challenges. Sure, it hurts for a while when you work in a newsroom which has lost on-day editions when big stories break, but switching to overnight printing shouldn’t be blamed for the problems the industry faces. Not understanding the role a daily newspaper plays in the 21st century, on the other hand, is a much bigger threat.
It’s not a big town v small town, or daily v weekly differentiation. Many regional dailies own their patches just as much as weeklies. The Lancashire Telegraph or Blackpool Gazette are examples. On the other hand, the weekly Lichfield Mercury has stiff competition from Lichfield Live these days.
There is no evidence that going overnight hurts sales. In fact, many papers which switched to overnight printing actually saw circulation trend improvements. While breaking news can, indeed, have a positive impact on sales, it’s normally a temporary one, maybe only lasting one day. (And, of course, if the story is big enough, you print again).
Truth be told, it isn’t about when you print – it’s what you print, and what the audience expect.
Up until about four years ago, I believed evening newspapers had to be printed on day to succeed. I changed my opinion on the day I went to Birmingham to attend Paul Bradshaw’s first Jeecamp. Joanna Geary, then at the Birmingham Post, was sat in front of me for much of the day and, in the afternoon, pointed out something to me on her laptop. It was a BBC News story confirming that Shannon Matthews, the West Yorkshire schoolgirl, had been found after being missing for over a week.
On my way back through Birmingham city centre, Birmingham Mail bills shouted about Matthews’ being found. I didn’t need to read the paper (although I did buy it – but as a journalist, that doesn’t make me typical) because I knew what it would say.
Indeed, the story had already developed on the Mail’s coverage, as is the way of 24-hour news channels. It was entirely possible that those office workers who would be struck by a breaking news bill five years ago, would have already been familiar with the story thanks to internet access at work.
But regular members of the public don’t spend all day on news sites in the way journalists do, and often need a prompt to visit them. The difference between 2008 and now is the way the public at large use social media. The ability to alert someone to a news story via a Facebook share or Twitter update is the difference between the news on the internet just being there, and news on the internet actively seeking a reader. There is no escape.
Up until 2008, I suspect my judgment had been coloured by experiencing that buzz which engulfs a newsroom when it rips up the front page to slot in a new, breaking story. It can be addictive. But like most addictions, it can be harmful.
An edition of a newspaper can only ever report events to a fixed point in time, and even with your own distribution fleet and a printing press under the newsroom always on standby, that paper’s coverage of a live news story will be out of date compared to rival media by the time it hits the streets. That, to me, is a sure-fire way to kill newspapers when those competing against you (and, often, relying on you for stories) can be more agile.
The myth which needs killing now is the idea that newspapers which aren’t printed on day are, by default, full of stories people will have read elsewhere. That’s rubbish. Regional newsrooms – in print and online – set the news cycle more often than they respond to it.
As I speak, Sky News is following up the Manchester Evening News (published overnight with smaller, on-day editions) exclusive splash about a second grooming ring being investigated in Rochdale. The story has developed during the day – and so has the story on the M.E.N website. The Birmingham Mail (now overnight) rarely splashes on a story which has been around the previous day, or if it does, it makes sure it takes the story forward. Many of its front pages are exclusives – and stories like the Aston Villa players brawl are brilliant whenever they hit the newsstands, morning, noon or night.
Learning from the internet
As any web editor or web-savvy news editor who uses their website’s internal site search reports to help influence news gathering knows, people turn to Google or a news website to find out what’s going on when they hear of a breaking news story which is of interest to them. It’s just easier than popping down to the newsagent or, as more likely these days, the supermarket (changing consumer habits also point to the advantages of overnight printing).
So it’s back to the old internet v print argument is it? No. It stops being that when you dismiss the argument that if our website didn’t have it online, more people would buy the paper. Wrong – they’d turn to someone else providing the information, even if we consider that information to be inferior.
The proof is already there
The two can co-exist and support each other. Take the Daily Post in North Wales – a morning newspaper which has always been evening in style. A murder in Portmadog happened at the weekend at the Post were all over it online, but still saw a sales increase on the Monday – up year on year by about 3%, according a tweet by former editor Rob Irvine.
It has never had the luxury of on-day printing to make sure it can get in the stories which might have broken overnight (or when the police press office arrives for work). Yet it has one of the most solid sales performances in the regional press.
What regional newsrooms can’t afford to do is rely on breaking news to sell newspapers.
The challenge is to make sure the content is what readers want, in a way which makes them involved – and content they’ll struggle to get anywhere else … and to make sure the readers know it is there. Reading a newspaper is a lifestyle choice … a lifestyle choice which may well evolve on to tablets, and, perhaps result in on-day publication making a return – only without the printing and distribution costs. Pay for an e-edition which gives you an AM and PM edition on your tablet? That sounds like a goer.
This isn’t an argument against on-day printing. If it works for a title and they can afford to do it, great. But the solution to our industry’s challenges don’t lie in the time our papers go to bed. They’re more likely to lie in making sure we’re providing people with what they want, when they want it – and that they know they can’t get it anywhere else.
Perpetuating the myth that newspapers are full of news people have seen elsewhere already certainly doesn’t help. It’s not true, and what’s more, it’s downright dangerous.