The story of the disabled pensioner attacked outside his home and too terrified to go home as a result became national news after a local well-wisher decided to raise some money for him – and ended up with over £300,000.
The story sums up the strength of the regional press (despite what the wonks at the BBC may think) but also the challenge the regional press as it adapts (or most of it does) to a digital future.
The serendipity of print
Katie Cutler is the woman who was so upset by the story of how Alan Barnes – who was born with sight and growth problems after his mum contracted German measles during pregnancy – was attacked as he moved his wheelie bin outside his bungalow that she decided to take action.
She opened a page on GoFundMe – similar to JustGiving – and began appealing for donations. Like the Manchester Evening News’s campaign to raise money for the Manchester Dogs Home last year, no-one anticipated how the appeal would take off.
Her actions were prompted by something she read in the print edition of the Chronicle. Katie will have had no idea what she was going to read in the Chronicle until she picked it up (although the front page will have been a clue).
For me, the list of things regional journalism has ‘lost’ as audience migrate from print to online is actually quite short. Yes, cynics will point to revenue, but those same cynics are remarkably short of practical, realistic solutions to that – and ‘don’t put it online’ or ‘put it behind a paywall’ are about as far as they get. And they also ignore the rising revenue on digital.
But on the ‘lost’ list I’d probably put serendipity. The power of regional print lies in its ability to inform people about things they didn’t even think they needed informing about. In a world where people have access to all the information in the world, they have tended to use search to select the content they are interested in.
The randomness of social and the silo of search
Local news websites now reach more people than ever before. The idea that regional newspapers, in the digital age, are declining only stacks up if you ignore digital, something the BBC seemed only too keen to do as it sought to start positioning itself for licence fee negotiations with the Government.
But it’s how they reach websites which shows just how different audience habits are between print and online. The biggest challenge for many sites is engagement – getting people on to websites, and staying there, and better still, returning regularly. These are both things that newspapers would assume are a given for print readers – frequent flyers who read a lot.
The likelihood of someone searching for ‘attacks on disabled men’ on the day the Newcastle Chronicle broke the Alan Barnes story is slim. That’s the risk of the silo of search – people search for stuff they are interested in and other, important things, can go unreported.
Social media helps massively here. All it takes is for one person to share a story and many more will see it. That organic process is one newsrooms can encourage, but need to make sure they don’t try to force or manipulate. The Chronicle could not have predicted or expected its stories about Alan Barnes would be shared by the local branch of chain hotel (right).
So we’ve gone from a world of print where serendipity helps stories get the attention of readers, to a world where search silos run the risk of restricting audiences to just the content they know they want to see, and now we are in a world where social is helping get those stories back out to audiences that didn’t know they were looking for them.
This is a world where journalists are no longer news editors, but your friends on Facebook and Twitter are. It leaves news brands massively at the mercy of social media giants who could, at any time, change the way they work to the detriment of publishers. So what next?
A return to loyalty
It’s about as obvious to say mobile is the future as it is to say that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. But the growth of mobile internet usage, and more importantly, the rise of apps, offers perhaps the strongest chance publishers have to rediscover that loyalty that was so long taken as a given in print. Transcending all the predicted digital trends is the fact most expect the relationship between content and reader to become more personal than ever. Social was perhaps an early step on that journey.
But various studies suggest people tend to download very few apps beyond their first flurry. So the challenge for any publisher is to get their app on to the phones of readers, probably by showing the reader that the content they want as part of their daily lives.
Apps have the potential to make local news consumption a daily habit, much in the same way picking up the newspaper at the newsagents on the way home from work once was – and still is for millions of people every day (another point many critics of the regional press ignore).
In fact, a newsroom doesn’t require an app to succeed here – just make your site so useful and valuable to someone that they choose to bookmark the site to their home screen. An app, of course, makes this much more simple.
With that change in technology, the serendipity of print which was valued for so long, returns. The connection is once again with the brand, the relationship one of trust and an understanding that time spent together via a phone is time well spent.
It’s a positive, powerful message for any publisher who gets it right. For regional publishers, it’s a way of ensuring stories like the attack on Alan Barnes continue to empower communities to make a difference.