Can we save local newspapers?

13 Oct

Can we save local newspapers?

I’m not going to answer that question.

Yet.

But politicians of all persuasions are certainly queuing up to tell us that we should try.

The demise of the local rag would be a tragedy, they say. We’d be losing a pillar of local democracy, they tell us. “My best mate’s a media baron, who’s going to help me stay in power,” they often add. Hang on, that last bit’s not right.

Meanwhile consumers of media are changing their habits at a frightening pace, largely at the expense of the Press.

I’m researching a blog for the near future on whether we should be concerned about the fact most local newspapers are haemmorhaging readers.

I want to know what, if anything, can be done about it and whether we should do anything about it.

If you’ve read your local paper and you’ve got a single idea about how it could adapt to the internet age – how it could improve so you’d be more inclined to buy it (or keep buying it) – I’d be really interested in your views

I’ve put some questions below to  prompt you but please feel free to rap freestyle, either in the comments section at the bottom of this post or by emailing me privately at michaeltaggart[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk (I’ve written it like that to stop evil web spam robots taking my family hostage).

SOME QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

1. Digital: how can newspapers adapt to the digital revolution and should they be part of it (by, for example, producing mobile content or ‘personal newspapers’, like Paper.li, to subscribers based on their interests…or by sharing content with blogs)?

2. Is Government intervention helpful? Are politicians right to want to help local newspapers?

3. What do local newspapers actually do and could anyone else do this? Or are they irreplaceable (a) as pillars of local democracy and (b) as forms of entertainment?

4. Is competition from council magazines a problem? (disclosure: I work at a local authority, well,  for the time being anyway)

5. Is there a way of monetising newspaper websites? What do you think of paywalls for local news organisations?

6. Is historical lack of investment in journalism by the media an issue?

7. Is poor local newspaper content a factor in an age when hyper-local news and tailored content are available and sharable at the touch of an iPad?

 8. Should a national fund for local news be created through the tax system and would it work?

9. Can local newspapers compete for advertising in the era of Craigslist – or should they just give up?

10. Is life becoming less local?

Tell me what you think.

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3 Responses to “Can we save local newspapers?”

  1. Byron October 13, 2010 at 9:35 pm #

    Some great questions!

    YES local papers MUST be part of the digital revolution. HOWEVER, you didn’t specify WEEKLY local papers. And weeklies can survive as newspapers longer than dailies. Although ultimately, weeklies will also one day go the way of the dinosaur.

    But locals newspapers must go online and serve their community in that manner. Many are already doing so. The Bay Area Guardian, here in the San Francisco, Bay Area, serves the Bay Area (about as local as it gets nowadays). It’s the younger generation that is embracing the online/digital space in droves! And I think local papers, if they can’t make sufficient revenue through advertising, should charge a nominal fee.

    Government intervention, whether it be local, state, or federal is helpful only if it helps to further support investigative reporting. This means a level of quality journalism that requires more than just one day’s worth of investigation!

    As for competition, I believe studies have shown conclusively that more choice can actually be deleterious to one’s ability at arriving at a satisfactory decision. At the same time, we understand freedom by the level of choice we have at our disposal. So competition from local councils is fine. But in the end, people gravitate towards the opinions (not facts, unfortunately) that appeal to their sense of the world.

    Local newspapers have to focus on what they do best in order to compete with Craigslist and other classified listing services. I read the local newspaper in my neighborhood because there is good quality content and I’m curious and want to know what’s happening in my neighborhood! And Craigslist doesn’t feature this content.

    I don’t believe in taxing for local news. I believe people should simply PAY for it. And if they don’t, they remain the IGNORAMUSES that they are. And this country is overflowing with them!

    The quality of government is reflective of the quality of the people it serves. When people don’t want to spend the time and money to increase their knowledge, then ignorance remains plentiful and we, as a society, suffer for it. However, spending money on cable watching Fox news certainly doesn’t help! But local newspapers are about serving their local communities and people have to GIVE A DAMN!

    Local newspapers do have a place in the online realm and eventually they will find their voice if enough people don’t let theirs go to sleep.

  2. Frankie Taggart October 14, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    The free market will ensure in the next five years that newspapers will be solely online, will gain in popularity and that their content will be paid for, apart from the news itself, which will remain free.
    The newspaper ought to be in rude health. It’s just the ‘news’ bit and the ‘paper’ bit that cannot be monetised.
    Local papers need to start investing in original, valuable content again, like they used to (ie columnists over the age/mental age of ten).
    (Incidentally, why is everyone getting worked up about paywalls all of a sudden? Paid-for newspapers, by definition, aren’t free. A newsagent is constructed of four paywalls and a roof.)
    The challenge for papers is to compete with non-newspaper online forums in the hyper-local battleground. But for the readers, not for advertisers.
    The physical paper economic model of advertising paying the shareholders’ dividends doesn’t work on the internet. No paper is ever going to compete with Craigslist.
    But people will go to a newspaper rather than an online forum for expert opinion, well-written features on local issues and engaging columns. And they’ll pay for it.
    Newsquest, my company before I moved to Hong Kong, launched the first British local newspaper on the internet in June 1995 and quickly developed the concept of “digital communities”.
    The project, revisited and revised every couple of years since, has been a failure because the company isn’t willing to invest in content.
    Patrick Barkham pointed out in an excellent article written for the Guardian ELEVEN YEARS AGO that conformity and profit are anathema to many visions of local online communities.
    This is true. But they’d still pay 25p for a chuckle over their morning coffee at the wit and wisdom of their local big mouth columnist about the dog poo in the local park.

  3. Nick Mosley October 15, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    How can newspapers adapt to the digital revolution?

    Newspapers need to become multimedia products in order to take advantage of the digital era. Television channels, and cross-media companies (Fox/News International/Sky being a prime example), are probably better placed for this as they are channels that are constantly ‘on’ or live and by their nature are incredibly visual. However newspapers still excel at in-depth analysis of issues and, in the UK at least, have a tradition of free comment by columnists and editors that broadcast media doesn’t necessarily enjoy. The question is whether there is a large enough market to pay to support this important function.

    The demise of the demand for printed newspapers and the apparent reluctance for consumers to pay for online content is a huge problem. Whilst I don’t believe that people will pay for newspapers via their desktop computers in enough volume to subsidise the quality of journalism we enjoy from the UK broadsheets, the mediums of the iPad, iPhone and other handheld devices start to offer a glimmer of hope. A fine example of McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’.

    Apple are at the top of the media game in that they control every aspect of their product from manufacture to operating system, from content to distribution etc etc. The rapid dominance of Apple branded hand held technology and it’s seamless performance and integration, opens doors for subscription based models for news content whether standalone or bundled into monthly packages aka satellite or cable television.

    It is how newspaper and magazine publishers take advantage of the new technologies of the mobile internet that will dictate who sinks and who swims.

    This all points to the possibility of a second incarnation (maturation?) of the World Wide Web which sits above the ‘free’ web we currently enjoy. For content providers to survive they have to generate revenue and for mass market publications such as newspapers this has to be a combination of commercial advertising and consumer payment (with perhaps a little owner patronage thrown in for good measure!). This of course opens up a whole new economy of the web, with the haves and have-nots (government broadband zsar Martha Lane Fox take note!), however that is the condition of the free market. As a stop gap at least in the UK at least we have a public system of generally impartial news information available through the license-fee model of the BBC, and it’s not to say that every media outlet will want to take the closed subscription model, or that the closed subscription model will be out of reach of the mass market (most people can afford broadband and subscription TV; and AOL internet initially launched as a closed subscription model so it’s not exactly a new thing).

    The question as to whether newspapers should be part of the ‘digital revolution’ is moot in the fact that they are already part of it whether they like it or not. Many of the first major web portals in the UK were created by the UK press (Guardian Unlimited springs to mind), and the information/news/comment they have created for many years now has been disseminated for free by newsbots and spiders such as Google. Unfortunately the traditional press haven’t exactly seized the digital era ‘moment’ and adapted their content and distribution models accordingly… they’ve just tried to repeat the old way again and in doing so have lost out to the new pretenders.

    It very much appears that local newspaper groups have seriously under-invested in their online content and profile. The aesthetic of sites is dated, the navigation is clunky and non-intuitive, and the content (much like the bulk of the content of the hard copy) is hollow. How and whether traditional local newspaper companies can turn this around is debatable.

    Is government intervention helpful?

    The UK has a proud tradition of independent press and on the whole the public are aware which paper has which political colour nailed to its mast at any one time. Direct government involvement in the press, whether national or local, has the potential to undermine the UK’s democratic values and should be avoided at all cost and legislated against if necessary. Outside matters of state security, the UK print press is self-regulated and on the whole this has been an effective control mechanism (apart from a few notable examples).

    What do local newspapers do and could anyone else do this?

    Although there has been a very visible rise in the culture of blogging, one has to ask the question: are the multitude of voices equally valid, and should equal importance be given to each one?

    I think probably not. Our society seems to be to heavily centred around the ‘me’ culture – and whilst I’m a believer in human rights and equality, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to take every last opinion into account. Let’s face it, much of the blogosphere is crap. Blogging has created cultural noise and the noise itself doesn’t necessarily have much meaning when considered in terms of wider society. Many bloggers could be accused of naval gazing and such wallpaper shouldn’t be portrayed as news (although admittedly I may engage in this myself every now and then). There’s a Reithian in me somewhere and there is more need than ever for media professionals to manage the creation of news and ensure it has an acceptable level of integrity (which is a whole new question…).

    Even mainstream bloggers such as celebrity whore Perez Hilton and the undercover bloggers of Westminster, don’t have the same societal reach as even the smallest circulation UK national and local papers. This physical visibility of the ‘Front Page’ on our streets, trains, buses, workplaces and homes is an important tenant of our democracy. The screamers on the newspapers and the a-boards of the newsellers are a constant visual reminder to Joe Public of the news agenda.

    Is competition from council magazines a problem?

    In agreement with the opinion of the vast majority of taxpayers in the UK, I think they are a waste of public money, and in the sense they only tell good news stories, they aren’t exactly representative of the workings and delivery of the council itself. It always makes me chuckle that letters are welcome to be sent to Brighton & Hove City News however they won’t actually be printed – not exactly democracy in action.

    I don’t believe any intelligent reader (if they actually bothered to read the council newspaper that is) would believe that the content was anything other than spin and propaganda (political or otherwise).

    It would be a dangerous situation if any council newspaper looked to generate commercial revenue. I’ve seen local council’s ‘sponsor’ magazines, including here in Sussex, and I find this deeply anti-competitive and ethically objectionable.

    Is there a way of monetising newspaper websites?

    Yes, through cleverly thought out mediums and distribution models such as the Apple model described above. Ultimately monetisation comes as a result of delivery: of desirable content to readers, and ROI to advertisers. Whether your online or still offline, as a publication, income essentially comes from one or both of these streams (and patronage/sponsorship).

    Regional local newspapers, particularly with their current content style, face more of a battle than national newspapers as the readership demographic isn’t particularly attractive to major brands and doesn’t encourage regular advertisers. Perhaps creating more dramatic content through local columnists is the way forward for regional media. Although certainly in Brighton & Hove I don’t see any columnists with bite, and I suspect the Burchills, Littlejohns et al are slightly out of the price bracket of our local press.

    Is historical lack of investment in journalism by the media an issue?

    Yes. Journalism as a career tends to be underpaid and lack respect. The idea that ‘anyone can write’ is fundamentally flawed. Local newspapers in particular suffer from bad journalism and the increasing tendency of press release copy-and-paste isn’t exactly conducive to increasing their sales figures. Content attracts readers, readers attract advertisers, advertisers pay for content.

    Is poor local newspaper content a factor in an age when hyper-local news and tailored content are available and sharable at the touch of an iPad?

    Possibly. We are generally less engaged with our local communities so much of the content of local newspapers is no longer relevant to our lives. The content generated by our own online peer groups and cliques appears to be most relevant but without some form of generic local media to highlight the key stories and issues relevant to our geographical locale, we risk ghettoising communities and opinions.

    Should a national fund for local news be created through the tax system and would it work?

    I see no reason why initial public sector seed funding shouldn’t be offered to set up the launch of local television stations as long as the organisation was structured accordingly ie. a social enterprise. Personally I hope to see Brighton as one of the test beds for this kind of project in the very near future.

    The ongoing running costs of such an entity shouldn’t be funded by the tax payer, but rather by producing content that generates viewing figures and demographics that advertisers and sponsors wish to engage with.

    Television news in the UK is of course subject to much more stringent rules and regulations about impartiality than print media.

    I can’t immediately see any model for local print media. Brighton in particular has a plethora of local media so the market is functioning as it should.

    Can local newspapers compete for advertising in the era of Craigslist?

    Yes but they need to be niche. Taking Brighton as an example, The Argus rather than developing new niches has instead decided to replicate the models of other local publishers with a property magazine, a tourism supplement, a weekly lifestyle/tv supplement, a countywide ‘society’ magazine. Whilst not only being unimaginative, this kind of smash-and-grab approach to advertising revenue probably has very little longevity and, I suspect, doubtful returns for advertisers compared with dedicated niche publications. That said, I do believe that local news is itself now a niche and if properly streamlined and adapted then regional press can survive (maybe a weekly title like Guardian Weekly?). Despite my personal feelings (I should state that I also publish a couple of magazines titles in the city) on the commercial tactics of our local newspaper, I do fundamentally and wholeheartedly support its existence, and see it as an essential part of the fabric and function of the city, and as a citizen I would fight for its survival if that situation should ever arise. I also have the utmost respect for the work of the professional journalists working there.

    Despite the growth of the internet, there is still a window of opportunity for newspapers and magazines to take advantage of the web. Young people, the technologically and media savvy cosmopolitans, whilst portrayed in the media as the common man, are still only a few demographic groups within the UK. There is still opportunity for hard copy print to survive for another five to ten years, if the model is correct and quantifiable return is made for advertisers and sponsors. But any offline media that isn’t investing in an online future may as well close their doors tomorrow morning.

    Is life becoming less local?

    Our communities can change in demographic and distance but I think any anthropologist would say that the number of people in our ‘circle’ has a maximum threshold and that isn’t going to change no matter how many Facebook ‘friends’ or Twitter ‘followers’ we manage to attract. My experience is life can be as local as you make it.

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