The regional press has seen substantial circulation declines, yet total readership is growing via the internet. Steve Dyson asks the experts about the reasons for change, future prospects and whether national organisations should still engage with the sector.
Q What’s caused consistent circulation declines for most regional newspapers?
“Long-term reasons have been gradual but growing in intensity. TV and radio took much longer than expected to supplant print as the prime news medium. TV also came to dominate leisure time. Travelling to work by car rather than public transport inhibited newspaper-reading, and car radio use should be viewed as important. The growth of what constitutes a ‘region’ was paralleled by breakdowns, among individuals and families, especially incomers, in regional identification. Serving wide regions with competent news services became more difficult as hard-pressed staffs were urged to concentrate on core areas. By the turn of the century, working class ‘masses’ of the 1950s and 60s transformed into a middle class majority, making it more difficult to target audiences. Better-educated masses have been more choosy and found regional papers unappealing; too many regionals chased audience volumes by dumbing down, retaining working class audiences in decline and unappealing to advertisers. And then came the internet, preventing the growth of a newspaper-reading habit among emergent generations from, say, 2004.” Roy Greenslade, media commentator, the Guardian, Professor of Journalism, London’s City University.
“More media to choose from and thus more competition for readers / viewers / listeners; changing work patterns; growth of the internet; more mobile, less locally-rooted population; local papers seen as old fashioned.” Jon Slattery, leading media blogger at www.jonslattery.blogspot.com
“Increased competition for people's time from other media and other activities, such as late and Sunday shopping; competition from online with must-have information for free – often from papers’ own websites; competition from online for classified jobs, previously a big reason for buying papers; the recession and subsequent reduction in economic activity.” Dominic Ponsford, editor, Press Gazette.
“The initial slow burn was created by the growth of time poverty and a lowering of interest in matters local and regional. The escalation in recent years has been caused by the increase in both elements, the ability to obtain information from other sources – and a perceived lowering in quality of products and a decline in value for money and time.” Neil Fowler, ex-editor, Western Mail and various regional titles, now Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford, studying regional newspapers.
Q Have these declines changed the relationships between national organisations and the regional media?
“The overall view from the metropolitan elite – particularly politicians – is that local and regional papers are wonderful (ie, treating them with ‘kid gloves’). In fact, most London-based organisations are largely ignorant about them. Some, aware of how journalists operate at regional levels, tailor press releases so they need little subbing. Others simply ignore non-national press, viewing its influence as increasingly insignificant.” Greenslade
“National organisations are bound to ask are they reaching their whole target audience. How can they reach those not reading local press?” Slattery
“Newspapers remain the dominant force at a local level, but organisations may need to look at other ways to reach people who don't read local newspapers – via online and perhaps direct communications.” Ponsford
“National organisations have seen regional media becoming increasingly irrelevant and have looked at other avenues. Where newspapers have retained healthy circulations, national organisations still see them as valuable when a truly local message is required.” Fowler
Q Do you still feel the regional media is a force to be reckoned with? How and why?
“Newsprint regional daily titles are dead in the water. It is possible that brand names will retain enough kudos to last into an online life. However, lack of investment in websites makes that touch and go for many titles. Local weeklies probably have a longer lease of life. But can advertisers reach sufficiently well-heeled and interested audiences? I somehow doubt newsprint will be a useful vehicle to reach them.” Greenslade
“In a fragmented market they are still a solid brand. They appeal to people with stakes in a local area, typically married people working and socialising in an area with children at school. They are good at running campaigns on local issues, can put pressure on politicians and local authorities, and can have influential comment and letters' pages.” Slattery
“In a fragmented media world they may have a smaller piece of the pie – but at a local level, established print players still have by far the biggest slice. Local newspapers are collectively read by more people than nationals and usually out-sell any individual national on their own patch.” Ponsford
“Yes, because nothing has stepped into their roles... yet. Regional media is still a high-profile location to launch news events and what they report, in print and online, is picked up by others. Cover pricing has become more aggressive, so reliance on advertising has diminished slightly which will lengthen life-spans. But two important factors remain: most regional and local newspapers have very strong brands on which they can build futures – and most still have reporters. A local blogger in a spare bedroom can't replicate either. Whether owners of traditional brands have the guile, imagination and nerve to build different futures remains to be seen.” Fowler
Q Is the regional media in terminal decline, or simply more fragmented and hyper-local, with circulation and revenue falls balanced by online increases?
“Publishers are managing a decline – some better than others – that they know is terminal. The trick is to secure a large enough affluent audience online to appeal to advertisers and thereby provide funding for journalism. I do not believe subscription will work.” Greenslade
“Big changes are taking place. Decline in print is accelerating, but most papers have websites. Online advertising is not yet replacing that lost to print. The big question is whether local press will recover classified ads from new internet auto, job and property websites. But despite the worst recession in living memory, comparatively few local papers have closed.” Slattery
“Decline for regional dailies isn't terminal – but may be transformative, turning more into weeklies or bi-weeklies. Weeklies will bounce back to a certain extent after the recession and have a long-term future. Increased online reach is certainly balancing out readership decline, just not the advertising one.” Ponsford
“It's not terminal, but is changing dramatically. Online revenue increases will not cover the declines regional print has suffered. But very local products have great futures. Many local businesses are too small to find a place on most search engines, so opportunities for very localised publications remain. Traditional regional and local publishers have to adapt radically to survive and take risks, otherwise smaller businesses will appear from under the radar and take what remains of revenues.” Fowler
Q Does the reduction in regional editorial staff mean fewer messages from national organisations get through to local audiences?
“Large organisations with sophisticated PR divisions can exploit journalistic staff reductions by transmitting press releases in what we might call ‘oven-ready copy’.” Greenslade
“Well-written press releases are likely to go in relatively untouched because of pressure to fill editorial space, making it easier for big organisations with professional PR departments. Given falls in advertising, most papers will be enthusiastic about sponsored pages.” Slattery
“Good press releases will always have an impact at a local level. Staffs are smaller, but so are paginations so journalists can be more discerning.” Ponsford
“Regional groups with fewer reporters will desire well-written 'free' copy. There will be opportunities for larger organisations, especially if they are as honest as they can be in what they submit.” Fowler
Q How important are locally-owned, hyper local media? Can they and social media fill gaps left by shrinking traditional regional media?
“Some enterprising start-ups may well supplant traditional media outlets. Niche outlets – hyper-local news, business, sport, gardening or whatever – could succeed where papers, spread thinly across a news and features agenda, cannot. I receive menus for www.TheBusinessDesk.com sites every morning and can see how, if they secure a large enough audience, they could fill a gap. I am taken with Rick Waghorn's Norwich football initiative, the Darwen news site started by Linda Brooks and the Brighton news site launched by Frank le Duc.” Greenslade
“Small at the moment but growing; should be monitored by any national organisation targeting particular areas. Some hyper-locals are labours of love, staffed by enthusiastic amateurs. Others are far more professional with decent financial backing.” Slattery
“Locally owned hyper-local media are of pretty marginal importance at present – with few really serious players. But they are a growing voice.” Ponsford
“They are very important, especially if they can develop products of sufficient quality that users will pay for (in some way) and will perceive as having value for time and money. Social media still has some way to go as readers (online and print) still require context.” Fowler
Q What are regional media’s continuing strengths, and should national organisations still work with them editorially and commercially? If so, why?
“All public bodies should strive to work with regional and local media because, despite the sad picture I have painted and the papers' terminal decline, they retain sufficient numbers of readers / users to make them the most effective way of communicating with local communities.” Greenslade
“Their strength is that they are well established and, in most cases, trusted. They reach people with stakes in the local area: families, local workforce, retired, settled people who identify with and have roots in the locality and are interested in local issues. If a national organisation wants to reach these types of people then it should still work with the local and regional press which still has clout and experience on campaigning on local issues.” Slattery
“Regional newspapers may be declining – but they still have a huge reach in print and online. They are also ‘trusted guides’, useful from a partnership point of view. I see them as one important leg of a communications strategy, but not the only one.” Ponsford
“Strengths: longstanding and well-loved brands; trust; reach; catalysts from which information can be disseminated; an interested and caring audience that may be of above average age, but with money and the desire to be involved; a residual desire for local and regional information for many people; lack of genuine alternatives. So yes, they should still work with them, for all the above strengths.” Fowler