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Outlook for 2011

First the good news; you’re still in business. Now the bad; the outlook remains bleak with continued belt tightening the only discernible strategy at many regional publishers. Yet, writes Peter Sands, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Peter Sands

Posted on: 20 January 2011

We have now entered the decade when newspapers will die. The print media was designed for an age that no longer exists and this is the decade when all those years of history come to an end. You may have seen self-proclaimed futurist Ross Dawson’s timeline that has UK newspapers keeling over in 2019. Like landline telephones and CDs, newspapers will be long-gone by 2020. The newspaper business model, and any conceivable future variation, is financially unsustainable. I have doubts about all of this, not backed up by statistics but borne out by 33 years’ experience that tells me the crystal-ball-gazers almost always get it wrong.

So how can newspapers defy the prognosis? In the November / December 2009 issue of InPublishing, I wrote a piece entitled Outlook for 2010. You can read it on the InPublishing website, but in short, it concluded that ownership, revenue and content were key. So when the editor asked me to write about what regional newspapers could expect in 2011, the easy option would be to simply say ‘more of the same’. Instead, I have drawn up my top ten things that I would like to happen. I also consulted the great and the good in the industry and have included their views in a side panel.

1. Stop the war

There is a colossal mistrust between the companies and their employees. Redundancies, pay freezes and discontinued pension schemes have led to demoralised staff and industrial disputes. Respect for Mike Ashley style managers, who make brutal decisions and explain nothing, has never been more lacking. Journalists believe there is no strategy other than to maintain margins by cutting costs and then cutting them again. Where is the leadership and the vision? Communication, the first rule of management, is often poor. I have been impressed by the fresh approach of chief executive John Paton at the Journal Register Company who points out: "If you are going to channel change … you are going to have to reward those taking the journey with you – the employees.”

Paton, who has introduced profit sharing, adds: "I blog to my employees and the public. I ask for their help and they oblige. I also regularly email my 3,106 employees and they me." Before we rebuild newspapers, we have to rebuild the internal relationships. Which leads us to …

2. Change (the) management

Old-school editors, greying subs and street-pounding hacks have all been sacrificed, but what about the chief executives and the MDs? There are some who have kept the ship steady but there are others have had their chance and failed; failed to protect the journalism or to act on the digital opportunities. In their one-dimensional approach to ‘the management of decline’, they have let down their staff, communities and are now letting down their shareholders. Paton has a view on why there has not been a radical overhaul of the newspaper business: "Fear, lack of knowledge and an ageing managerial cadre that is cynically calculating how much they DON’T have to change before they get across the early retirement goal line." The industry needs fresh blood, including at the very top.

3. Chase the money

This is a big one. Newspapers are anticipating some small green-shoots, but the public service cuts, with all but the essential advertising campaigns shelved, will hamper any real recovery. The challenge, of course, is not how to deal with cyclical downturns. In a world where a baker Tweets his customers to tell them his bread is out of the oven, is there a role for newsprint advertising at all? Newspapers need to forge partnerships with businesses, to become their marketing agencies. Despite the Tweeting baker, there are many who don't have the time, knowledge or inclination to set up a digital marketing strategy. Newspapers should be running their customers' campaigns, designs and websites for commission. But, creating a prototype, offering a bespoke service, running a portfolio is a lot harder than sticking a 20x2 on a page. Newspapers need a new approach to sales and new people to implement it.

4. Sort out the content

Regional newspapers will have to provide something pretty special to bring in a bigger audience. And too many don't even come close. This year, I was at a newspaper where each reporter spent two hours a day collating fillers - coffee mornings and the ubiquitous ‘volunteers wanted’. Is this the best use of anyone’s time? Newspapers must take a more sophisticated approach to content and context. Aggregating and curating, pulling in information and comments from different sources and pruning them, may be as important as content itself. One thing is certain - newspapers have to give readers a genuine reason to buy the paper or visit their website every single day. That may mean recruiting all the bloggers, the voices and the Facebook addicts. Mostly though, it means original, quality, targeted and real time content. Without it, there is no business.

5. Stop doing things that aren't core

So, what is our business? Putting sellers in contact with potential customers. How do we do that? By delivering a guaranteed audience (through must-have content) and by persuading businesses that we are the best route to the market (through innovative sales). We have seen cuts in editorial production and these will now move to other areas – distribution, printing, accounts. Newspaper companies need to focus purely on content and sales. If you are elsewhere in the business, expect to be sold, outsourced or closed down.

6. Go weekly

The smaller so-called evening papers, those under 20,000 (there are nearly 30 of them) will soon reach a point where five or six night a week printing is no longer viable. It would save money, of course, but more importantly, a properly constructed weekly analysis of local events, complementing a comprehensive, hyperlocal digital news service, would be more relevant to the readership than a daily print offering of superficial and out-of-date news.

7. Stop talking paywalls

They may be a sensible model for the Financial Times, and even the Times, but local newspaper companies need to maintain and grow their audience. They won’t do that by excluding huge swathes of the community.

8. Stop paying lip-service to local

Newspapers need to live up to their ‘heart of the community’ slogans. They need to work harder to raise their profile, get things done, organise events, become community leaders, be central to the economic fabric and get their reporters out.

9. Stay at home

The concept of a newspaper office is out of date and subbing hubs make no sense. Why do people have to sit next to each other? Technology means stories can be filed and pages made up anywhere, certainly at home. Thousands of hours are wasted travelling to and from these offices. Why? For reasons of control and lack of trust. 2011 should be the year when the industry wakes up to the advantages of remote-working.

10. Think about running a dry-cleaners

Two years ago, at the Thinking Digital Conference, Newsweek writer Dan Lyons was brutal about daily newspapers: “They are dead. They are in denial.” He also said nobody was making any money online and, when the conference chairman asked him about Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, Lyons replied bluntly. “Arrington isn't making money. He's full of shit. Michael Arrington is making some money, but he's running a small business. It's like running a dry cleaner.” Isn’t that the point? The big business model is not suited to local newspapers. The Guardian has already given up its regional wing and DMGT is reportedly interested in offloading Northcliffe. Last month, Thomas Crosbie Holdings sold the Sligo Weekender to a Wexford businessman. He will no doubt lavish the title with the attention to detail that is neglected when head office is a thousand miles away. Perhaps local newspapers’ best chance for the coming decade is to be owned by local independents who will accept realistically small margins. Like a dry cleaners.

What should regional newspapers do in 2011?

“Acknowledge that content produced by our readers - properly edited and presented - can be as valuable as our journalism.”

Neil Benson, editorial director, regionals, Trinity Mirror

“Avoid trying to please everyone by doing all things for all people across every kind of technology. Focus on content and services aimed at niche audiences.”

Sarah Schantin Williams, senior consultant for WAN-IFRA Newsplex

“The growth in hyperlocal newspaper sites is being matched by the rush by mobile companies to deliver locational advertising. To win this battle, publishers must navigate their complex relationships with search engines very carefully.”

Jim Chisholm, media consultant

“Make sure the world understands how fast our reach is growing.”

Shamus Donald, regional managing director, Newsquest Oxfordshire & Wiltshire

“They should benefit from the general uplift in advertising revenue – but the outlook could be weakened by the public spending cuts. Keep holding on to your hats.”

Raymond Snoddy, media journalist 

“Are regional newspapers producing enough 'blow me Doris' stories? Is the content good enough, detailed enough, local enough and interesting enough?”

Steve Dyson, former regional editor

“Develop a clear strategy for the 50+ market. It's set to grow for many years.”

Barry Dennis, former MD of regional dailies

“Believe in your papers as much as the three quarters of the population who read them…”

Bob Satchwell, executive director, Society of Editors

“Find creative and innovative solutions to provide advertisers with increased reach and response.”

Steve Anderson-Dixon, regional managing director, Northcliffe Media South West & Wales

“Invest in IT systems that tag and database everything. For readers, make life easier with hyperlocal news and aggregated real-time information; for traders, make targeting consumers more efficient by becoming their hyperlocal marketing agency.”

Graham Lovelace, owner of Lovelace Media

“Treat our newspapers with respect. They should be works of art and a voyage of discovery not just rags. What will keep us alive is compelling content beautifully put together. Unfortunately this costs money.”

Mike Gilson, editor, Belfast Telegraph

“Build engaged communities that can be commercialised. Grow relationships across all platforms through data-capture, collaborative reporting, contextual and behavioural ads, crowdsourcing, linking and conversation.”

Alison Gow, executive editor, digital, Liverpool Daily Post & Liverpool Echo

About Peter Sands
(Details last updated: 25 April 2013)

Peter Sands is a newspaper consultant and designer. He has redesigned 85 titles, assisted publishers in changing their businesses and runs courses in all editorial disciplines. From 1989 to 1993 he was editor of the Northern Echo.

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