March’s circulation figures made grim reading once again for Britain’s local newspapers. There were double-figure declines almost across the board for dailies, with big titles like the Yorkshire Evening Post recording a 29 percent annual circulation drop. It was a similar story for weekly newspapers, with the biggest regional titles showing sales fall by around 7-15 percent, with even bigger drops of up to 54 percent year on year for smaller newspapers.
The worst is that in most cases these aren’t unusually big hits. Most local papers have seen their circulation more than halve over the decade; some big papers manage only 15 percent of their circulation during the 1990s.
Falling sales aren’t even the main problem. Newspapers go digital; they derive revenues from advertising. But as advertising has moved from print to online, advertising revenue hasn’t flowed towards publishers. Instead, every new online advertising dollar is going to Facebook or Google.
And yet, everyone is agreed on the value local news brings to communities.
In February, Prime Minister Theresa May described the closing of hundreds of local newspapers as a “danger to our democracy” and launched a review into the future of newspapers.
Two-thirds of Britons claim local newspapers are their most trusted source for local news; Everyone from Gandhi to Mark Zuckerberg have praised local press for their ability to bring communities together. Zuckerberg wants to prioritise local news on Facebook’s news feed, perhaps in the hope that encouraging community engagement on a local level will deflect from more contentious national stories.
By one count, Britain has over 1000 regional newspapers, paid and free. Finding ways to keep them running is one of the media industry’s biggest challenges of the next decade.
Broadly, there are four ways to keep local press afloat. Persuade subscribers to pay for it; Persuade everyone to pay for it; Persuade someone else to pay for it; or support it with other, non-subscription revenues.
The first has understandably attracted the most attention. A small fee of £5-£10 a month would in theory be more than worthwhile for relevant, targeted local news. Subscriptions are hot in the news industry: After a decade when new media gurus urged publishers to offer news for free, lest they’d be “excluded from the conversation”, there has been a return to the concept of paying for quality content. The New York Times recorded digital subscription revenues up 51 percent year on year in Q4 2017. The Information, a smaller online-only tech publication, is expanding fast with five-figure numbers of subscribers paying $399 a year.
Can local press demand the same prices? The New York Times looked at how local press might differentiate itself from other news sources, social and national, to the point where people might pay for it:
The plan, for any would-be entrepreneur brave enough to try it, goes like this: Hire some very good journalists; just one or two are O.K. to start. Turn them loose on a large metropolitan area — try San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston or any other city going through waves of change, and whose local press has been gutted by digital disruption.
Have your reporters cover stuff that no one else is covering, and let them ignore stuff that everyone else is covering. Don’t do movie reviews, stock market analysis, Super Bowl coverage or anything else that isn’t local. Instead, emphasize coverage that’s actionable, that residents deem necessary and valuable for short- and long-term planning — especially an obsessive focus on housing and development, transportation, education and local politics.
Package it all in a form that commands daily attention — probably a morning email newsletter — and sprinkle it with a sense of community, like offline and online networking events for readers.
How will you fund all of this? This is the most important part: Shun advertising. Instead, ask readers to pay for it with real money — $5 or $10 a month, or perhaps even more. It will take time, but if you build it right, you just might create the next great metropolitan news organization.
Some of that advice comes from Ben Thompson at Stratechery, itself a subscription-funded newsletter. Thompson argues that local newspapers are obsolete, “not because local news isn’t valuable, but rather because everything else in your typical local newspaper is worthless (from a business perspective)” – advertisers and subscribers don’t want to pay for newspapers because they’re not worth paying for.
The quantity of news local papers cover deters readers because it compares unfavourably with competing content on the internet.
Subscriptions might save local news but only at the cost of understanding the inefficiencies associated with local newspapers’ obsolete business model. According to Thompson, almost everything associated with local newspapers is wasting money, time and deters potential subscribers. There’s no need to print or distribute local papers anymore – they should go digital. Editorial should get a buzzcut – local press shouldn’t cover anything that’s covered better elsewhere: International, national, non-local opinion columns, non-local business, lifestyle, even sport. Quality and focus beat quantity, and readers are more likely to subscribe to a publication with one valuable article a day about a well-defined subject than another with three valuable articles and twenty worthless ones.
Knowledgeable readers should be encouraged to contribute – the sort of user generated content that publishers like Johnston Press Ltd see as making up potentially 50 percent of its future content, and in a stripped-down editorial operation this UGC would be even more welcome.
Among other things, Thompson advocates removing “any sort of wall between business and editorial.”
“This is perhaps the easiest change to make, and the hardest for newspaper advocates to accept. A subscription business is just that: a business that must, through its content, earn ongoing revenue from customers. That means understanding what those customers want, and what they don’t. It means focusing on the user experience, and the content mix. And it means selling by every member of the organization.”
What do readers like, though? This analysis of Norwegian publisher Amedia shows local readers are most interested in very local stories: Crime, housing, traffic, accidents and incidents. Local newspapers, however, cover culture, sport and politics in more volume, even if they don’t attract readers.
Would readers pay £10 a month for a daily newsletter focussing on local crime, healthcare, real estate, transport and accidents? It might seem rather dry absent any cultural or sporting editorial, though we agree that readers will go elsewhere rather than read generic coverage of national events in local papers.
If newspapers can’t persuade sufficient numbers of local readers to subscribe, is there a case for making local coverage a public service, funded by a service charge?
This is the idea behind the Community Information Cooperative in the US. Founder Simon Galperin says “We know how to make community, we know how to do great journalism, we know how to provide for local news and information needs. The one thing we don’t have is the funding model to make that happen.”
The Community Information Cooperative falls into that paradox familiar to policymakers where end users agree on the need for a service but are unwilling to see the cost of providing it added to their tax bill. Although the sums are modest – perhaps $40 a year – a smallish town could fund a newsroom with a $500,000 budget to report and distribute news in a way that suits its community. With that sort of budget, Galperin says, “that’s three to four reporters with an events budget and a community engagement budget. I always imagined that it would be an approach of we have a reporter always canvassing, going around and knocking on doors, saying, ‘Hey, I’m your local reporter, what do you guys need, what are your info needs?’”
A third way to fund local journalism is getting others to pay for it. Some publications put their faith in philanthropists who see local media as a public good, but a more realistic prospect is winning support from those institutions that have made independent local news reporting particularly difficult.
In the UK, the BBC is primary among these. Its local coverage is comprehensive, if not totally focussed on the hyperlocal, and combined with its reporters’ conscientious Twitter posting makes commercial alternatives a tougher proposition.
The BBC makes some efforts to level the playing field. From last year, it started funding 150 local newspaper journalists to the tune of £8 million a year. Newspapers will also be able to use BBC local news video reports on their sites. The reporters are classified as “local democracy reporters” and are tasked with reporting on local authorities. The BBC’s support for local press hasn’t been without controversy, however, as one commentator noted – it’s using license payers money to support big regional publishers who have done more than most to slash spending on local news.
While cuts to press jobs, closure of news desks and newspapers are sore points, publishers would doubtless argue that they’ve made these changes to survive. Google and Facebook have made the commercial prospects of newspapers seem bleaker than ever, and it’s inevitable that the local press turns to these platforms for assistance, given that much of their allure lies in their status as news provider to hundreds of millions of users.
Both Google and Facebook have examined how to support press. The duopoly has a something of a double act routine with the media, one striving to appear as “best partner” for publishers as the other flounders under scandal or the scrutiny of regulators. When both are in the shade, smaller networks like Snap or Twitter make overtures with better advertising terms.
Though they’ve been hesitant to throw money at newspapers (which is what some publishers, from Rupert Murdoch downwards would like them to do), they’ve funded some endeavours. Google is a backer of the UK’s The Bureau Local, which uses data in investigate reporting. Google’s NewsLab seeks to spur “innovation in journalism”, through fellowships and tools that help newspapers adapt to the kind of coverage Google values: Underrepresented voices, data journalism, immersive storytelling, drones in news coverage.
One gets the impression, however, that in most cases Google is shaping news coverage to its purposes, rather than supporting newspapers directly. (It certainly shapes distribution, with its Accelerated Mobile Pages feature, which makes pages faster to load on smartphones, most of which run its Android operating system). Partnerships with tech platforms are a great help for newspapers and reporters: Google, after all, knows better than most what readers are looking for and in what formats they like to consume news. But NewsLab projects can seem like making newspapers a more integrated part of the pipe that feeds Google’s information stream.
As discussed above, Facebook is making local news a priority. From January it started pushing local news higher up user news feeds than national reports. In February, it launched its Local News Subscriptions Accelerator, a $3M project designed to help newspapers drive paid subscriptions via Facebook. It’s part of the Facebook Journalism Project, launched last January, which has a special priority for local news:
Local news is the starting place for great journalism — it brings communities together around issues that are closest to home. We’re interested in exploring what we can build together with our partners to support local news and promote independent media. This initiative is in its earliest stages; we want to talk about it now so that we can get as much input from newsrooms and journalists as possible, working together to shape what local news on Facebook could look like.
The Subscriptions Accelerator is currently trialling with 15 US regional dailies. Facebook tends to trial, iterate or dump fairly quickly, so we’ll know soon how successful the project has been (though we’re not sure on whose terms this success or otherwise is on).
Again, one gets the impression of a digital colossus helping local newspapers succeed in its ecosystem, rather than in their own right. News stories are only 6 percent of content on Facebook’s news feed, and some close to the company argue that this fraction accounts for almost all the grief the company gets from governments and NGOs, so it would be better dropping news altogether.
Reporting news is an expensive business, with high marginal costs of improving coverage: When the results of these efforts mean more traffic and revenue to social platforms rather than publishers, it’s no wonder many in the news business wonder if the hits and likes earned on Facebook are worth the trouble of optimising for the ecosystem.
A final option is using other, non-subscription services to raise revenue – running events has long been a local press favourite. Sales are another. UK publisher magazine publisher Dennis expects to hit £60 million in revenues from car sales this year, 45 percent of its total revenues.
Dennis has a car sales platform, Buyacar.com, and publishes two popular car magazines. Its leadership claims to have received overtures from vehicle manufacturers keen to explore ways of selling cars directly to readers, so expect consultancy fees to contribute to revenues too.
Selling classified ads used to be big business for local newspapers. There was a relevant, engaged market and delivery would often mean little more than a drive to a nearby street. Free services like Craiglist and global markets like eBay put an end to much of this trade, though there are signs that classifieds are reemerging, with revenues in Europe forecast to grow to $7.5 billion by 2022. Jobs, cars and real estate make up roughly a quarter each of this market, with general advertising accounting for the rest.
Via Buyacar, Dennis goes further along the chain by letting people buy rather than just contact the seller: Integrating sales with announcements could be one way to binding readers more closely into the newspaper experience, especially if the readers trust can be quantified via a subscriber or contributor’s profile on the site.
Perhaps this is local media’s moment: Users are becoming wary of time ill-spent on social media; regulators have the big platforms in their sights and advertisers seek inventory outside the duopoly thanks to fears of brand safety and ad fraud. There’s renewed interest in the local as well, from hipsters seeking locally-sourced produce and parents becoming more engaged in schools and local government.
There’s no easy fix, but there is definitely a will to make local press succeed.