Like their larger cousins, local newspapers are far from immune from the challenges of the digital era. As a result, many local news publishers are busy adapting their business and editorial models to the realities of an increasingly platform and mobile-led media landscape.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism recently published a new paper on this topic, featuring in-depth findings from 48 interviews with executives, editors-in-chief, digital editors, section editors, reporters, and commercial directors across four different European countries.
Here’s what you need to know from the research.
Four common responses to the changing media environment
“The local and regional newspapers in the sample are far more digitally evolved than some people might expect,” Joy Jenkins, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford, and one of the two report authors, told What’s New in Publishing via email.
Examples of digital evolution manifest across the titles featured in the study include:
1. New organizational structures: “Most newspapers in the sample maintained separate desks in their newsrooms for digital production,” Jenkins observes, “although some also emphasized that all editorial staff members become involved with publishing articles online, incorporating multimedia content, promoting articles and videos on social media, and considering analytics.”
2. Reimagining print editions: Some titles are seeking to create a more coherent user experience, by better aligning their print and online products.
Jenkins highlighted how Westfalenpost, a regional German newspaper in the southern part of the former Prussian province of Westphalia, has implemented a project-based approach to “develop an editorial theme (for example, “cold cases”) for both the print and online editions.”
She explained how “editors, reporters, designers, and digital staff members worked together to… produce articles, videos, photos, podcasts, and even e-commerce products,” around these themes.
3. Thinking about audiences in new ways: “Some are developing apps to better cater content to audiences’ interests and geographic locations,” Jenkins says, others are working to determine “what types of stories they [different audience groups] want to read and at what times.”
The French outlet Nice-Matin’s digital strategy includes a focus on “long-form solutions journalism.” “Subscribers can access content as well as attend events, engage with solutions journalists, and vote on future investigation topics,” Jenkins notes.
Produced by a video editor and three journalists, 8,000 subscribers pay €9.90 per month to access this material online (up from 1,500 when launched in 2015) and content is also featured in a four-page Sunday section in the print newspaper.
4. Cautiously embracing social media: “Respondents referenced social media, particularly Facebook, as a key driver for traffic to their websites,” Jenkins says, “although some also said they do not want to be dependent on the platform and have adjusted their posting strategies accordingly.”
Facebook – as seen at Nice-Matin and elsewhere can be a key means “to connect with groups and sources in their community,” and “some newspapers, particularly in France, have developed strategies for sharing content on Instagram, and WhatsApp also represents an important outlet for connecting readers with content,” Jenkins says.
The influence of parent companies: three different strategic approaches
“Companies recognize that the traditional approaches to creating and monetizing local news is not sustainable in the digital age,” Jenkins declares, “and they are experimenting with an array of new approaches to newsroom organization, multimedia storytelling, content monetization, and community engagement as a means of continuing to serve their communities and readers.”
Those approaches vary across national and organisational boundaries.
“The difference between newspapers operating independently or in smaller ownership companies versus those that are part of larger parent companies, such as Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Keskisuomailainen, and Funke Mediengruppe, was particularly clear,” the report states in its conclusion.
Echoing some of the conclusions from my own work in this space (which has examined the health of local newspapers in the United States), the authors comment how “parent companies are pursuing different overall strategies for producing and monetising local news in the digital age.”
“Independent titles and small groups focus on local depth, whereas larger groups pursue regional breadth or national scale. Local newsrooms part of larger groups described the benefits of being connected to a broader – and sometimes more financially robust – network of newspapers as including access to digital experts and to national digital content.”
The authors defined these three approaches – the core characteristics of which are identified in the chart below – as the search for national scale, regional breadth, or local depth.
What this means to you: eight takeaways
Despite the fact that the titles featured in this study are quite diverse – including newspapers from large national companies (i.e., Trinity Mirror in the U.K.), large regional companies (Ouest-France in France, Funke Mediengruppe in Germany), smaller regional companies (Mediengruppe Pressedruck in Germany), and independent models (Kaleva in Finland) – a number of cross-cutting takeaways from the study can be identified.
As Jenkins affirms: “Although local news organizations are facing acute challenges, such as shrinking revenues, circulation numbers, and newsrooms, and they can no longer rely on the advertising-focused business models that historically sustained them, if they are willing to invest the time and resources needed to create compelling and distinctive local offerings, there is room for them in the digital media environment.”
Key conclusions for publishers:
- Financially, there is no one size fits all solution: the primacy of paywalls is far from universal. “…Newspapers in the UK are still focused on drawing traffic through breaking-news content and videos,” while Finnish newspapers are only beginning to explore charging for premium content due to the relative robustness of the print market.
- Advertising monies alone will not suffice, but that doesn’t mean publishers have given up the advertising ghost. Companies in Germany and the UK, for example, have launched initiatives to better understand and monitor audiences’ web-usage so that they can respond to these behaviours with personalised content and advertising.
- Alternative income sources are being actively sought: case studies cited in the report include forays into custom publishing, events, specialty publications and e-commerce. “As competing with platforms such as Google and Facebook for advertising revenues remains a challenge, experimenting with new revenue sources is key,” Jenkins says.
- Compelling and distinctive output is essential if you want to prosper in a busy market: “They not only focus on covering their communities through various types of reporting (service content, investigations, etc.),” Jenkins says of the papers studied, “but in some cases, they are actively engaged, such as Kent Messenger’s KM Charity Team, which runs a literacy program and awards a local teacher of the year, and the Ouest-France Solidarity organization, which provides disaster support and donation appeals.”
- Many local outlets enjoy great loyalty and trust among their readers, offering a firm foundation to leverage. “In many cases, they [the newspapers in question] are the only journalists covering local courts, schools, traffic, crime, history, and other topics, and several cited their role as advocates for their areas,” Jenkins says.
- Consolidation isn’t necessarily a dirty word. Although corporate targets and formats can be both challenging and limiting, larger organisations potentially offer more opportunities to share best practice, as well as access to a wider array of resources and digital expertise. This narrative is often overlooked, the report suggests.
- All reporters and editors need to be able to produce multimedia content and use digital tools. Such skills cannot be the sole preserve of a journalistic minority. Germany’s Main-Post addressed this through “Digital Thursdays,” in which staff members learn how to produce online teasers, headlines, and videos.
- Invest for the long-term: Efforts at digital upskilling, as Ouest-France Editor-in-Chief François-Xavier Lefranc cautions, will “take time, a colossal effort, loads of instruction, lots of goodwill, too, because not everyone progresses at the same speed.”
The same principle applies to other parts of your editorial and business model too.
Where this was in evidence, the report authors note, it “demonstrate[s] the willingness of many local news organisations to invest in developing a digital future rather than just extracting short-term operating profits from a declining print business.”
“Research on the structural shifts affecting news organizations, including the rise of digital, mobile, and platform media and the resulting changes in audience consumption habits and challenges to traditional business models, tend to emphasize national and international news,” Jenkins says.
However, local news providers see many of the same challenges and opportunities. (Although, of course, they often have to address them with fewer resources.) This report, and others produced in the past year, begin to redress that balance.
Outlining a cautious optimism for the future, there’s a recognition that the trust imbued in many local news outlets by their audiences is a valuable commodity.
Yet, at the same time, we also need to understand that digital initiatives are unlikely to restore legacy revenues and profit margins, or the market power (in terms of both advertising dollars and audience attention) that many local news publishers once enjoyed.
Nonetheless, “publishers must [also] recognise that the advertising models and organizational structures that local media relied on 20 years ago will not sustain these organizations in the current environment,” Jenkins reminds us.
“As such, local newspapers should develop fresh approaches that emphasize multimedia distribution, distinctive local content, collaboration, and the user experience while recognizing the value of more streamlined production and commercial strategies.”
Click here to read the full report.