For a long time now, it’s been almost a sport to predict the demise of the regional Press. Ex-editors and former journalists hiding out in universities have often been the worst offenders, but few predictions were more memorable than the one by Enders Analysis back in 2009 that half of the country’s regional papers would be gone in five years.
For a late 20-something (as I was then) journalist hoping for a long career in the regional press, the headline from the analysis was a rather bleak prospect. As Paul Linford, editor of Holdthefrontpage, noted this week, it’s now 2014 and instead of around 650 titles going to the wall in that time, it’s nearer 100.
Not good for those working on those 100, of course, but nothing like the Doomsday scenario Enders predicted. Paul notes that the number of closures between 2009 and 2014 increased and declined as the recession got worse, then better, then worse and then better again. Looking at the list, many of the titles were free titles, the ones most likely to struggle when local firms reign in their spending and without the ability to easily tap into national advertising spend.
The big change during this time has been the realisation – finally – that the future for the regional media lies in being brilliant at digital content.
In some respects, Enders’ predictions summed up a mood which prevailed once the recession began. There was a sense of fear that this could be the recession which pushed many publications over the edge, and those skeptical about the potential of digital to be a long-term replacement for print found many prepared to listen that now wasn’t the time to start offering up more content for free online when readers should be paying for it.
Those who sought to blame the internet for falling ad revenues and print circulation revenue circled their wagons around print. Understandable, to a point, but in a world where the future depends on spotting future trends, a worry.
In the last 18 months, it’s become very hard to find people ready to dismiss out of hand the potential of digital to build a solid future for the newspaper brands many of us love. It’s become abundantly clear that try as many people might, nothing is going to stop people switching to the most convienient news source for them. When the BBC first began in the 1920s, the news agencies which provided its news coverage insisted that news bulletins must only be broadcast after the evening newspapers had come out, to avoid annoying the press barons of the age.
Reading that gem of information in Nick Robinson’s brilliant book ‘Live From Downing Street’ I saw a neat parallel with those in the regional press who insist on saying that if people want information, they must pay for it from us. Those people saying that are much quieter now, and for good reason. The growth in digital audiences appears to excite many journalists. Being able to see your work reaching a bigger audience than ever – and an audience which is much more likely to say what it thinks about that work – is exciting. We’re live news sources once again, something newspapers pretty much stopped being the moment radio took the airwaves. And it makes money, too.
Hours after reading Paul’s excellent piece on HTFP, I read a post by Clay Shirky – arguably the most forward thinking person when it comes to predicting the use of media – called ‘Nostalgia and Newspapers.’ It’s a sharp read, but basically says that the US newspaper industry is still prone being nostalgic about the past and lets that colour its judgements for the future. He takes a (justifiable) pop at universities which are giving students a love of print as medium but not the skills to get on in a multimedia world, and a dig at the commentators who put on rose-tinted glasses where print is concerned. In short, the people who talk about newsrooms as they remember them.
He basically says there is a fight going on between realists – those who know the future is digital – and the nostalgists – those who a cynic might define as the King Canutes of newsrooms, attempting to preserve the past. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in ages. Not because it’s something I see that much these days, but because it sums up the next big challenge newsrooms have to face: Audience data. There is very real potential for a battle between realism and nostalgia.
I happen to believe it’s possible to love newspapers – as I do – and be realistic about the future. There’s no reason why many newspaper brands can’t thrive into the future if led by editors who are prepared to say ‘digital is what we do now and we produce a newspaper from that content.’ The Manchester Evening News doubled its audience in six months by doing just that, while the Chester Chronicle doubled its audience by focusing more of its energies on its new website too. In Newcastle, where we’ve just launched our new-look digital newsroom, audience numbers are at least 100% up on the same period last year every week.
A regional newspaper shouldn’t be defined by what it’s printed on, but by its audiences, and how they are responding to what is produced, regardless of platform.
Having survived perhaps the worst recession in a century, newsrooms now face a challenge of perhaps equal importance – a new style of reader who isn’t afraid to go to new places to find what they want. After all, how many people would have guessed five years ago they’d be getting their celebrity news from the Daily Mail online?
It’s possible to see, minute-by-minute, the stories which are working well online and the ones that aren’t. The grumblers on Holdthefrontpage moan about websites doing too many listicles, quizzes and picture galleries but if they are the things working, why not do them? If you use a sensible suite of metrics to monitor performance – starting with page views but also looking at pages per user, the stories which appeal to local audiences and the impact they have on social media – a pattern of what the audience wants starts to emerge.
But it does pose many questions about the type of content we serve online. Using what has always been produced for print as a starting point is no longer good enough. We’ve never really known how popular content has been in print. Each story, each picture, each video, each blog post can now be measured to the nth degree.
If you determine your most valuable audience to be your local audience, then content which appeals to a loyal, local audience may well be more important than content which drags in people for just one story. But all content has to have a meaningful appeal online. ‘But we’ve always done it’ can’t cut it any more.
It’s not enough to say that a piece of content is important for the ‘brand’ if it’s not delivering traffic to a website – because if it can’t deliver traffic, it can’t aid your brand. The next big challenge is to make that brand-important content work for the brand online. Make it sing on social. Rethink the way it’s presented. Look at the way the story is being told. And if that doesn’t happen, then the question is surely why that content is being produced at all.
What’s the point of the leader column these days? How relevant is a match report two days after the match has happened? Restaurant reviews surely work better if written by an expert in the newsroom, rather than anyone happy to head out for a meal? And then there’s the content we need to do more of: Traffic and travel news shifts page views like little else; live blogs of big news stories, informational content about big events – why wouldn’t you select the Birmingham Mail to get the lowdown on the German Christmas Market? Over the past two years, over 500,000 people have.
Those are the sorts of questions which need to be asked – and it all comes down to the numbers you can put next to the stories. In many ways, it’s no different to seeing a print sales lift one day and assuming it’s down to the splash. Only there is no assumption any more – just digital audience fact.
What’s more, I’d put money on that digital data being useful for planning print too – I’ve seen plenty of examples of newsdesks surprised at how well a certain story works online, allowing it to influence their page one choice, and then getting another surprise when the sales figures come in.
Paul Linford’s analysis would suggest many brands made it through a recession the experts predicted would kill many of us off. The next big challenge is just as real, and potentially just as tough too. But taking audience data and using it to decide what a newspaper brand produces could well be the most important step any editor can take towards ensuring the relevance – and therefore future – of their title long into the future.
It’s about learning to love the numbers which tell a story about our readers which a decade ago we’d have never thought possible. And we can’t afford to be nostalgic about it.