The death of (local) newspapers

Well, not quite. But the last few days have made for even grimmer reading than normal. Newsquest are set to close 11 regional titles, mostly freesheets. Deloitte reckons there’ll be more to go. I don’t think any regional hack can consider themselves safe.

Never mind local newspapers getting more Web 2.0 savvy and improving their websites, many of them are just struggling to survive right now. And that’s going to seriously impact on local news both on and offline. Over to Jon Slattery:

“Before newspapers are cut to the bone, closed or merged could someone please tell us where the money is going to come from to produce worthwhile editorial on the web which comes anywhere close to that provided, up to now, by regional newspapers.”

The sad thing is that as local papers struggle to stay afloat and cut back – and as journalists increasingly get overburdened – there’ll be less time to put time, money and resources into producing great, unique content for the web and engaging across the internet.

And that really does leave a vaccuum, news-wise. There’s already a move towards ultra-local websites set up by people to serve the communities that local newspapers are unable to.  I can see these growing (possibly set up by ex-journalists). And who’s to say that the BBC won’t step back in with their ultra-local news idea, arguing that there’s a void that needs to be filled?

The irony could well be that by getting distracted by fire-fighting on the print front, local newspapers get caught out by the smoke starting to come from online.

Would any newspaper be brave enough to completely shut down in a physical format and move everything online, adopting a more Web 2.0 way of doing news? Would it work? And how on earth would they monetize it?

If I had any inkling or idea on how to answer those questions, they’d be in this paragraph. But I don’t. So they’re not.

But, even if it is a desperate last throw of the dice, what does a paper have to lose if it tries it? Not that I’d want to see papers disappear from their communities, but if it’s a choice between online-only news and no news at all… .


23 Responses to “The death of (local) newspapers”

  1. 1 Nosemonkey December 10, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Based on little more than a hunch, I’d guess that most local newspaper readers are at least 35+ (an interest in local affairs largely starting after starting a family, when such things as school performances and crime rates start to matter), with the majority even older (especially OAPs looking for local events to pass the time after retirement). Which would mean that most local newspaper readers will be of the age groups that are least likely to be regular web users, and most likely to have no internet access at all.

    Most people aged 35-50 may well be fairly web savvy by now, but over 50s? Over 60s? I doubt it. And I’d guess that they make up the vast majority of local newspaper readers. As such, going online only would instantly remove such publications’ core existing audiences.

    (Vague example from a couple of years back, when I was working full-time on a magazine whose readership was 75-80% 50+. Revamped the website, hyped it heavily in the magazine for months, whacked special offers, competitions and the like on there, and still struggled to get more than 50 visitors per day. This for a title with an ABC of 55,000…)

  2. 2 Gary Andrews December 11, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Yeah, in many respects I’m guessing you’re not wrong. But on the other hand, most of what people se to buy local newspapers for has been taken away to elsewhere on the web, so you’re faced with a real difficulty of what is the newspaper for and how to market it.

    It’s such a fine balance – keeping the core readership while trying to attract new readers and its one I’m not entirely sure how it can be achieved. Go too web centric and you lose readers. Don’t invest in the web site of things and that ignores the only real area for growth. And very few papers seem prepared to (or can’t afford to) invest heavily in both. It’s a toughie.

    I can still see quite a few papers heading online, not because it’s necessarily best for their audience, but because it’ll cut costs. Whether it’ll succeed is another question entirely.

    Although, in recent years, I’m pretty sure the 50 and 60+s are getting more web savvy.

  3. 3 DinaKarim December 11, 2008 at 10:08 am

    well, guess whose papers is the latest to be hit by closures?
    Closure of the Exmouth Journal office and moving to the central office 20 miles away with some people losing their jobs (not me , thank god) and working on a skeleton staff.
    More to come on my blog, I will do a piece on it.

  4. 4 DinaKarim December 11, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Also, you should read the article on the move of print to online by the Christian Scientist newspaper on
    They have completely moved from print to online, successfully I might add according to early forecasts, and they have set out in their article how a paper might do this.
    If the Christian Scientist can do it, which has a huge circulation (sorry I wish i had the actual figures), so can anyone else.
    It just takes guts.

  5. 5 Craig McGinty December 11, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I think small, local, online news services will have to work with existing services that currently make money through affiliate schemes etc.

    Many of these people spend a fortune on drawing people to their affiliate sites as they can’t create unique content.

    Look to marry the two together, as well as locally driven advertising, and there might be some light at the end of the tunnel.

  6. 6 Gary Andrews December 11, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I did wonder if you’d be affected Dina. I’m guessing the Sidmouth Journal is moving offices to Exeter are well? Kind of defeats the point of having a newspaper serving a single town if they’re not actually based in the town. That’s not great, although glad to hear you’ve still kept your job (not that I think you’d have too much problem finding one elsewhere).

    It kind of comes back to our conversation a few months ago – you just need a laptop, a dongle, a phone and a notebook to be a newspaper reporter. Physical space isn’t necessarily relevant. Maybe that’d be better than having an office and doesn’t compromise the quality too much… It’s an idea, if nothing else.

    Craigh, yep, I agree. The toughest part of moving a publication online would be to make money from it. Advertising alone won’t cover the costs, so if a paper wanted to do this, it’d need to get a bit mroe creative.

  7. 7 Patrick Sand December 11, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    The situation is a bit different here in the US. Last year the Washington Post’s entry into hyperlocal journalism, as it’s known here, failed miserably. Our big media players are reluctant to try it especially since so many of them are cash strapped right now. Currently the talk revolves around layoffs more than anything else.

    Along those lines – we think that there will be an influx of FORMER major media journalists taking up a spot in the neighborhoods. Since October my wife and I have been getting calls from people working at large media outlets who want to know what it’s like being the neighborhood news source. Some are looking for a soft landing in their own homes. They’ll transition from big office to home office.

    BTW – my wife likes your term – ultralocal. Hyperlocal comes off a little too Hitchiker’s Guide.

  8. 8 Ted Lemon December 14, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    If you have some runway left, you might want to consider using part of it to get readers to make the transition from print to web. You can’t just switch – you have to get your readership to follow you.

    This isn’t an original suggestion – I read it elsewhere in the blogosphere – but I think it’s a good one: use print to drive traffic to your web site. Print a relatively cheap broadsheet with some good teaser content, and include in every issue detailed instructions on how to access additional content on the web. Each article should end with a URL that leads to more detail on the story. Get people into the *habit* of visiting your site.

    As for advertising not being enough to pay the bills, don’t be too sure of that. Advertising is a valuable means for communicating with local customers. You probably aren’t going to make money on classifieds, but you can still sell commercial ads, both in your broadsheet and on your web site. You can also do the same thing with ads that you do with articles – put a URL in the ad that has further information about the advertiser – information the reader will want if they are interested in the services that advertiser offers.

    I haven’t heard of anyone successfully charging people for online access to the news, so if you can’t make it on advertising I don’t know how else you’ll do it.

    But as one commenter here mentioned, if you don’t have to have all the infrastructure of a complete newsroom, you can probably save a lot of money. Unfortunately you’re probably doing it at the expense of non-content-producing jobs, but if you succeed at least you still have a local news portal.

  9. 9 Jambo December 15, 2008 at 11:53 am

    I personally think papers will ‘stabilise’ – in that readership will shrink and shrink and then we’ll have a core. That core will never go away. No matter the doom-mongering, some people just love a local paper: for the football, crime stories, etc.

    I think the industry is thundering toward that core at the moment. There will always be a demand for reading news in paper form. I know I am not alone in finding reading online awkward and unsatisfying.

    I think people are just scared that all the readers will one day vanish, but they won’t!

    On a wider note perhaps one day newspaper sales will increase as people become better educated and more cerebral in general.

  10. 10 Gary Andrews December 15, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks all, there’s some really interesting points in the comments.

    Ted, yes, I completely agree that newspapers should do as much as possible to drive traffic online, as the audience won’t just arrive there by itself. Some papers are excellent at this, others less so.

    As for advertising… well, I’ve heard and spoken to several different people within the industry whose jobs are to figure out this kind of thing and they’ve all said they think advertising won’t quite cover it. In which case, you’ve got to find alternative revnue sources that aren’t charging for content.

    I don’t know what other revnue streams will be (probably non-news related activity like the Guardian’s Soulmates, I suppose. But they’ve got to get creative, for sure.

    Jambo, I think you’re right as well in a lot of respects. For all I say about newspapers needing to adapt to the web (which they still do. And fast) there will be a core audience that still buys the ink version, and if you can get a good balance you should be ok. But no matter how successful or profitable the paper, they need to get their online strategies sorted quickly.

    Oddly, and this is based on educated guesswork rather than any real empirical evidence, I think once we’ve gone through the worst of it and several papers have shut (and, let’s face it, several papers won’t survive), you may get a few tentative smaller papers that start up to fill the gap. But that’s probably unlikely for several more years, if not longer.

    I don’t think newspaper sales will increase as people become better educated though – the really smart ones will have RSS feeds and get all their info before the papers have even hit the presses.

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  1. 1 The Economist, the EU and online media strategies | Nosemonkey’s EUtopia Trackback on December 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm
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