As we reach the end of 2014, you’d think we’d be past this. But no, apparently not.
Recently, I found myself metaphorically banging the table when I began reading an interesting article on the website of a local newspaper, only to presented with the following phrase:
“For the Full Story, see tomorrow’s newspaper.”
Now, what do you think happened, seeing as I live maybe a good distance away from the nearest shop selling that paper, but close enough to be of interest to advertisers?
Did I think ‘this is a great story, I must jump in my car, drive 10 miles in the hope the two copies of the paper the newsagent gets in every day won’t have gone?’ or I did flip over to Google News and search for the story there?
And I’m pretty certain that I wasn’t alone in doing the latter, rather than the former. And when I did, I had 133,000 news sources to choose from for that particular story.
By the time I’d visited this particular news site – not one I work with, but one I visit most days – I’d already heard about the story on commercial radio news, on Five Live and via some tweets on Twitter. It was one of those stories which everyone runs with, but which the local newspaper should be at the heart of.
And indeed, it was at the heart of it in print, but online it was seemingly happy to surrender that position in the hope of driving a few more print sales, squandering a chance to find new readers online who might have heard about the story and coming looking for more details?
What compelled me to write this blog isn’t a desire to call out a newsroom still using what appears to be a newspaper sales-protection tactic which has long been proven to be pointless, but because of the reaction I felt as a loyal user of this website.
Maybe a few years ago, you could understand why this phrase was so common on news websites: Editors were clobbered for poor sales in print, but not exactly praised for driving digital audiences. What has become clear is that readers have moved on, and forward-thinking newsrooms have moved with them. Now the challenge is to keep competing for those readers.
And I’ve no problem with using digital platforms to promote print, but it needs to be done in a way which doesn’t result in the digital reader feeling like as though the brand doesn’t really care about them at all.
In years to come, local news websites will stand or fall by their ability to attract local users who visit regularly. All local news sites have a core number of loyal users who visit day in, day out, maybe direct to the home page or prompted by a Tweet they see or a Facebook post which appears in their timeline – both made possible by committing that social media act of loyalty: Following the brand.
Newsrooms need to focus on those audiences, see what they like, see what they don’t like, and respond. I’ve talked about the importance of data science in newsrooms on this blog before, and that science should focus squarely on the most loyal users who live locally.
As one of those loyal users of this website, my reaction to being denied access to a story being covered extensively elsewhere was one of frustration. It’s tantamount to being told you’re a second-class reader. If you want to be given the top-table treatment, you must buy the paper.
There is no way of proving holding that story back online will have driven one extra print sale. It will, however, have driven traffic on other websites. Top-line audience data will suggest audiences are far more promiscuous online than print readership surveys suggest ‘hard copy’ readers are.
But drill into the digital data, and you find a rump of super-loyal readers who are visiting most days. The wealth of alternative sources of content make it easy for that loyalty to be eroded.
The good news in this scenario is that every big story for a regional newsroom is a chance to hook in new readers and perhaps get them to come back. Treat the reader with respect online and there’s a good chance they’ll come back: The audience spike upwards will always be steeper than the one coming back down the day after the story has moved on, if you’re treating with digital reader with the same respect as a print reader.
But like the majority of people who choose to consume news online, being told I have to go offline to find out the news doesn’t work for me. It just makes me go elsewhere, to one of the many sites who have probably received the copy via a freelancer who has lifted it off the printed page and stuck it out as quickly as possible.
Local journalists have a golden opportunity to ensure what they do has a future for decades to come, but that will only happen if readers feel they are treated with respect. Sticking those seven words at the foot of a story online is a sure-fire way to make yourself irrelevant to a new generation of local readers.