Why the regional press has a greater sense of purpose than ever

 

In an article headlined ‘What’s the point of the regional Press’, The MediaBriefing earlier this week outlined an argument for why the regional Press no longer had a purpose.

The basis of the argument – you can read it here – can be broadly summed up like this: Facebook has launched its buy-and-sell marketplace service to take on Craigslist and ebay. The fact the regional press won’t suffer here because they’ve already lost classifieds to online verticals tells us there’s not much more for the regional press to lose. And as it loses more reporters it loses it purpose in life which is to be connected with local people, and we know this to be true because the NUJ says so. 

I suspect the headline was designed to be provocative, and to make you click the link to read it.

You won’t be surprised to learn I disagree strongly with the sentiments expressed on the MediaBriefing, partly because I care a lot about the role of the regional press, and partly because of the facts I know to be true.

Dealing with the second point first – some facts. Online audiences are at record levels for regional press titles. The ones I work with are about four times as big as they were five years ago, and the local reach of the titles I work with means those titles are now read by more people daily than at any point since the 1970s.

Those people reading them are reading for longer when they visit, and returning more often. Facebook may have put a greater emphasis on news from friends and families in its feeds, but we haven’t seen traffic from Facebook drop as a result. That tells me that people are sharing our links because they want their friends to see them. That, surely, points to a purpose which is stronger than ever.

If we do it right, we connect with people by giving them what they want, and then build a relationship with them so that when we have something we consider to be important to share with them, they are more likely to listen. Signing up for push notifications is a great example of this in real life.

But of course we do this in economically-difficult times. Like every other journalist, I’d love to live in a world where the amount people paid for news in print had just transferred with those people as they moved online. And the advertising revenue too. But it hasn’t, although a lot has.

So we have to seek out new revenues, and this is happening. We have to convince local advertisers who have us useful for 100 years in print that we have a valuable role to play for them online too. And this is happening. And we show national advertisers just what good it can do for their brand to be associated with a local news title which has 150 years of history in the town/city, but is also embracing the habits of modern readers.

And that’s how we retain our sense of purpose. By listening to readers, and giving them more of what they want, the way they want it. At times, local journalism has been its own worst enemy in this respect, ploughing away at what it’s always done on the grounds that it’s always done it that way, and that it’s a public service, not a popularity contest.

Which, of course, to a certain extent it is. But that public service becomes harder to support – and more difficult to justify – if it’s not actually connecting with people or making a difference.

The regional press as a business has also let itself down at times, pitching print against digital and underinvesting in the latter in the hope that it’ll improve the future of the former – listening to internal challenges rather than what readers are saying.

Regional newsrooms who listen to their readers are learning to focus the resources – ie the people – they have on the things which matter most to readers. That remains news, sport, information and what’s on in the main. But it means doing each differently. So more breaking news in real-time, sports coverage which gives fans something they didn’t previously know, and building reputations for great recommendations in what’s on.

And we are learning to tell each of those things differently. Some call it dumbing down, some call it clickbait. If the content we produce falls into either camp, we damage our future. We need journalists who understand their communities, are connected to their communities and know the best way to tell any story to those communities.

It does mean doing less with less, however. Marc Reeves, the editor-in-chief of the Birmingham Mail, was criticised for telling his newsroom last year that the Mail was no longer the paper of record in the city. To me, it was a statement of the obvious. Readers haven’t responded to the paper of record idea for years, but they do want to be kept informed of local things which matter to them. The successful regional newsroom will identify those things and focus on those things. “Cover what you do best and link to the rest” is a 9-year-old rule – but it applies more than ever.

It’s not by accident that titles such as the Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Echo and WalesOnline reach up to half of adults in their core areas each week. It happens because we give people what they want, in a way that they want it. That means accepting that we’re competing with everyone for anyone’s attention, and trying to ensure that time spent with us by a reader is time they consider well spent. It also means accepting that in some areas of content, others can do it better.

The regional press’s purpose has never been clearer: We’re to talk to, talk with and talk about local life in a way which makes people want to keep talking to us. Don’t be fooled by misleading headlines – the regional press has a purpose, and a point which built upon 150 years of history and a readiness to adapt and change for the future ahead.

Proof of that purpose and point is surely to be found with the readers who are voting with their fingers and swiping, typing and clicking on to our websites and apps or engaging with us on social media and other distributed platforms every day of the week.

But why let the facts get in the way of a good headline?

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