“One thing people often gloss over when talking about the regional press now is that we are commanding huge and very loyal online audiences,” says Henry Faure-Walker, chief executive at Newsquest, the publisher behind 19 daily titles including The Argus in Brighton and The Northern Echo in Darlington. “We have some markets, such as York, where 75% of the population visits our website at least once a week. Local journalists’ content has never been read more than it is today.”
Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press and Newsquest all reported a year-on-year increase of average daily unique browsers across their digital networks in June 2016. This is compared to a general decline in print sales of paid for regional dailies, with local weekly newspapers losing an average 9.2% of sales in the second half of 2015 compared to the same period the year before, according to ABC.
As audiences shift from print to online platforms, regional publishers are reinventing their business models to ensure they still deliver. As Jeff Henry, chief executive at Archant, whose titles include the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk and the Ham & High in London, says, “Readers and advertisers have more choice than ever before and our challenge is quite simple – relevance.”
The changing face of content
Less emphasis on “hard news” is one change in evidence. “It’s less about shock and horror on the front page,” says Faure-Walker. “My sense from talking to editors is that there is a shift away from car crash content. People seem more receptive to a slightly gentler approach than shouty red-top journalism.”
Archant is seeing a similar transition. “Successful features on a lot of the online platforms are the evergreen pieces of content – great walks in Norfolk or great places to eat, for example,” says Henry. “These generate a lot of ongoing interest and are relevant for people in our areas.”
It is about taking a broader view, says David Higgerson, publishing director at Trinity Mirror, whose regional titles include the Manchester Evening News and the Bristol Post. He says that such “popular” content boosts brand awareness. “The serious journalism is as important as ever but we are much more likely to be successful in maintaining that if we’re reaching an audience, and we are much more likely to reach an audience if we are part of people’s everyday lives beyond just news.”
Capitalising on new channels
Changing reader behaviour is also demanding that journalists work in a different way. Archant is transforming its journalists into content providers across multiple platforms. “For example, someone working on a story for one of our newspapers may also contribute to our TV channel plus Twitter and WhatsApp. If we maintain ourselves within the ghetto of print, that is what it will become.”
New online platforms – in particular Facebook – have been a focus for Johnston Press too, which saw its digital unique users rise by 7% year-on-year in November 2016, reaching 22.4m. The publisher conducts newsroom training around creating high-quality posts with local relevance and a high propensity for sharing, and has also invested in technology. “We’ve introduced new social publishing tools that give local journalists a way to effectively reach as many people as possible through machine learning, which gets smarter about when and where to post content across our accounts,” says Jeff Moriarty, chief digital officer at Johnston Press. One example is its use of a tool called Social Flow, which uses real-time data about what target users are engaging with and where to ensure that content is posted at the optimum time and place.
Johnston Press has also embraced Facebook Instant Articles, and its decision to harness rather than fight Facebook is reflective of the attitude of many regional publishers. Newsquest encourages its journalists to be active on Facebook and, as Faure-Walker says, while the social media giant is “a competitor for ad dollars, it is better to work with them and reap the benefits of community engagement in our cities and towns than treat them as the enemy.”
Tapping into data
Data is playing an increasing role in driving news too. Trinity Mirror has a dedicated six-strong data unit, and part of its role is to crunch the latest government data and send it to every title. “It means you haven’t got journalists in 40 of our newsrooms all poring over the same data when it first comes out,” says Higgerson. The data is then interpreted locally to drive a story. For example, when the ONS (Office of National Statistics) released figures in December last year relating to deaths from legal highs, various Trinity titles ran the story, including Wales Online, which reported that deaths were at their highest level in five years in Wales.
Last year, Trinity Mirror’s data unit secured funding from Google for the development of its Perspecs app, which shows news stories but also links to other online articles that express an alternative viewpoint. “It will help shape our journalism in the future,” says Higgerson. “We have to recognise that we aren’t the only people telling stories and the best way to get people coming to us more often is to tell the story ourselves but also give people a chance to see the other side.”
Finding new ways to survive
Online ad revenues are clearly rising – Faure-Walker says 30% of Newsquest’s ad revenues now come from digital – but regional publishers aren’t relaxing, and diversification into other areas is key.
Archant now runs more than 100 events a year, and last year it launched the first ice rink for Norwich under the banner of its local newspaper. “We got 14,000 people paying £10 to skate, plus sponsorship and advertising, [generating] well over £250,000,” says Henry. He adds that Archant’s new events platform, called Live, which will host forthcoming events from food and drink awards to wedding and property shows, will be “equally important to our relevance in future as anything else”.
One of the broader areas Trinity Mirror is investing in is e-commerce, forging affiliate deals with retailers. “If local people are wondering about the best deals they can get on Black Friday, for example, we will write about that and link to places selling those things where we probably have affiliate deals in place,” says Higgerson. “It means that half an hour’s work can result in thousands of pounds of revenue.”
Regional publishers appear confident that print will last at least another decade. But their investment in educating journalists, advertisers and sales teams about digital – and their move into alternative revenue streams – shows they are certainly not blind to reality.
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