The seven words which will leave any newspaper stone dead in the digital age

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. 

5 comments

  1. One day, a media historian might comment on how the industry decided to give up on developing quality content for print, a medium bringing in 80% of revenues, instead focusing primarily on digital, bringing in 20% of revenues (many piggy-backing print advertising packages). I’d like to be a fly on that future wall to work out what that historian’s comment might be… Meanwhile, I applaud David’s (and others) digital innovation, but warn any media decision-makers reading not to completely ignore the print hand that feeds them. Someone needs to point out that the digital king is currently wearing few revenue clothes!😉

    1. Quite a few wrong assumptions there Steve, in my opinion. The first is that digital growth has to come at the expense of print sales. The graphs I see show that focusing on digital hasn’t increased the rate of decline, and in some cases has actually reduced it.

      The logic behind the argument you are putting forward appears to be if we put more ‘developed more quality content for print’ sales would improve. But if that’s the case, why were print sales falling long before print newsrooms really took digital seriously?

      I’ve sat in meetings recently where the graphs show the growth in digital ad revenue is more than off-setting the revenue decline in print ad revenue. I believe other companies are starting to see the same in some of their businesses. Indeed, JP have said as much.

      The challenge is that 80% of the revenue might be in print, but the audience split certainly isn’t in print’s favour. We ignore the readers at our peril, and treating digital ones like second-class customers certainly isn’t the way to grow digitally, or indeed grow print sales either.

  2. If the historians looked back a couple of years, they would see that print accounted for 95 per cent of total revenue, and digital five per cent. Cast forward two or three years from now and, for most publishers, the 50-50 tipping point will have been passed. To suggest, these days, that most digital revenues piggyback print betrays a woeful lack of current information. The revenue graphs point clearly to a digitally-led future. In the meantime, the challenge is to grow digital audiences as rapidly as possible, while maintaining print performance as well as possible.

  3. Aha – I thought that would get you both going, gents! But seriously, I’m sure you’re right on many points. Just remember the poor old print product during this transition, as on many days too many are looking a little poorly, yet they’re still needed. Meanwhile, merry Christmas one and all. Xx

    1. Are they, really? Some might look a little thin, but pagination is determined by ad sales, not editorial focus on digital. And where are the advertisers increasingly spending their money??

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