Social Spider CIC’s Managing Director, David Floyd, with the third in a series of blogs on the future of local journalism — and how it doesn’t have to be rubbish

Picture of Enfield Dispatch newsstand outside Bush Hill Park London Overground station

The third of these blogs moves on from the question of what local news is for (now) to the ongoing discussion of how it’s delivered.

Going, going, still going

The death of traditional local print newspapers continues to be long, slow and painful. While there’s not much left to say about it, the context remains important.

Mediatique’s 2018 report for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Overview of recent dynamics in the UK press market notes that the average weekly circulation of local/regional newspapers dropped by over 50% from 63.4 million in 2007 to 31.4 million in 2017. This was an even bigger drop than for national newspapers (which dropped by 46% from 11.2 million to 6.1 million).

The effect of this decrease is slightly altered (whether for better, for worse or ambiguously) by the knowledge that the circulation decline for local publications that continued to exist was only 34% — with the rest of the drop being made up by publications ceasing to publish entirely.

Weekly paid-for titles saw a much bigger drop in average circulation than weekly free titles (50% compared to 39%). But weekly free titles were most likely to stop printing altogether. The number of paid-for weeklies dropped by 13% (from 528 to 458) while the number of weekly free papers dropped by 62% from (from 650 to 244).

The reasons for this decline — as discussed previously — are well known.

Assuming the worst

Barring significant (and seemingly unlikely) changes to their owners’ managed decline approach, it is difficult to imagine print newspapers published by the ‘big five’ local news groups getting any better than they are now. The main question left for them is the deeply depressing one of how bad they will get and how quickly, before they ultimately cease publishing altogether.

What’s been less considered is the potential role of print in what comes next. The assumption has been that it won’t have one. But this is an assumption based on amalgamation, shrinkage and closure of print publications being stages on the existing industry’s hapless trajectory towards doom.

If you’re looking at the situation from the opposite direction — you don’t yet have a local publication and you’re looking to start one — it’s a different matter.

Then the choice about whether or not to make use of print as a technology is one a range of decisions you have to make as you seek the best possible alignment of your available resources and the outcomes you’re trying to achieve.

Local heroes (online)

There are definitely advantages to not launching a print publication. The biggest one being that you don’t need to cover the costs of print and distribution. Reasonably closely followed by the lack of fixed deadlines and print dates.

In the independent sector, large numbers of high quality local news sites have emerged including Your Harlow, Greenwich’s 853 and Portsmouth’s Star and Crescent — along with longstanding independents that once had a print publication, such as SE1, continuing online.

The advantage of these models is that — while mostly being significantly reliant on one highly committed individual — they produce a high volume of high quality content at exceptional value for money.

The disadvantage is that there’s a fairly hard ceiling for the income it’s possible to generate online with one or two locally focused websites. Even if they wanted to, these sites would not be able to find enough paying customers to operate a successful paywall model.

In some cases they’re run on an entirely voluntary basis, in others the combination of member donations and locally-focused online ads pays for site editors to have a part time paid job at a comparable level of pay to working part time for a corporate local news group.

It’s very tough to get beyond that at a local level, though Stonebow Media, independent publisher of The Lincolnite and Lincolnshire Reporter, seems to have found a commercially viable model based on covering a whole county.

Getting to the Nub?

So far, the UK hasn’t seen much new investor-backed, online-only competition to ‘the big five’. One exception is Nub News, a hyperlocal news platform providing ‘all the staples of a good local newspaper’.

Amongst its 10 principles, Nub News promises ‘Local news — getting to the heart of your community’ based on ‘No fake news or clickbait’ and ‘No annoying ads, pop-ups or surveys’.

A Press Gazette article in 2019 described the business model for Nub News as low costs covered by: “local businesses targeted to take out one, two or all three banner adverts that scroll across the top of each hyperlocal page”, however the current approach seems more based on classified, property and jobs sections providing click throughs to Ebay, Zoopla and Reed.

Whether it’s banners or click throughs, the broader short term plan is spending investors’ money to reach the point where traffic is so high that those ads will be worth enough to cover journalists’ wages and generate profits on top.

Investors must be hopeful as Nub News has continued to hire new local journalists during the current pandemic.

Print money

These examples show that it’s possible to find new ways to do local news without print but there are two sets of reasons why print still has its place.

The first, particularly for new publications lacking significant investment, is financial. If you’re an individual happy to accept (or able to tolerate) not being paid properly (or initially, at all), then setting up a simple website is the cheapest, lowest risk way to get a new local publication off the ground.

But if you’re looking to pay people beyond yourself then — at a local level — print advertising remains the most accessible source of the kind of income that could enable you to do so.

While the residual print advertising market in many local areas will not support a new weekly publication (with any meaningful level of news content), less regular publications are a different matter. Hackney Citizen — launched in 2008 — was one of the pioneers of the independent local monthly model. While they haven’t been generating profits, they have managed to pay staff for over 12 years with a print circulation of 10,000.

In Wales, the Caerphilly Observer, published every two weeks, has a circulation of 13,000. It originally launched online in 2009 before moving into print in 2013.

Based on our experience with Waltham Forest Echo, Tottenham Community Press and Enfield Dispatch, generating £4,000 — £5,000 per month (or more) in print advertising income is a realistic target in many local areas. That’s not likely to be enough to offer a big return on investment to shareholders — but it’s enough to produce a decent monthly newspaper.

Ink or you’ll miss it

It’s vitally important that local publications find some kind of route to financial sustainability but the arguments for print go beyond that.

It remains important to consider the needs of the relatively small but significant number of people who can’t or don’t access news online — and providing news to these, mostly older, readers was a particularly important issue for our newspapers during lockdown.

However, whether or not you also read news online, a high quality, curated selection of local news stories and features in an easily readable, potentially even beautiful format, is a great piece of technology.

Monthly print newspapers are unlikely to be the best way to find breaking news about traffic accidents or violent incidents — but when it comes to looking in depth at what the local council’s doing or telling the stories of local campaigns and community organisations, they enable us to find news that we care about when it’s presented to us but which many of us wouldn’t actively go and look for online.

Beyond that, the fact that print newspapers are physical objects means they’re literally part of the community. They can be picked up on the way to the station (see above) as something diverting to read on the commute by someone who lives in an area but would otherwise not know much about what goes on there.

They can also be distributed via local outlets such as libraries, community centres, pubs and restaurants. This provides both a relatively low cost distribution model and added value for those community venues.

A combination of street, community and door-to-door to distribute remains one of the most effective ways of ensuring that thousands of people in a local area definitely get to read news (and see adverts) that are relevant to the place where they live.

Make your own news

While concerns about the future of the industry are entirely justified, it is entirely possible for local news in the UK (and elsewhere) to be better than it is now. A brighter future for local news is one that embraces diversity in multiple ways — including the formats for delivering it.

Print newspapers (and potentially other print formats) will be part of that better, brighter future in some areas, alongside a range of different online approaches. For local publishers (and those considering becoming local publishers) the challenge is to avoid gloomy predictions about what won’t work, to be clear about what you want to do — then work with local people and organisations to find the best way to do it.

Previous blogs:

Part One — Broken (local) news

Part Two — What is local news for now?

Upcoming blogs:

Part Four — Journalists vs. the people?

Part Five — Who pays — and how?

Start Spreading the News is a place to find out about Social Spider CIC’s community newspapers: Waltham Forest Echo; Tottenham Community Press; Enfield Dispatch

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