With newspaper sales and commercial revenues plummeting, and with publishers grappling with an ever-changing digital world, any interview with an editor leads to the same question.
How can your title continue to publish quality news, profitably, in an online world where content is free, and where businesses will only pay pennies for advertising, as opposed to the pounds they used to pay in print? In short: where’s the money?
Keith Harrison, editor of the Wolverhampton Express & Star, pauses, changes his sitting position and visibly searches for the right reply.
“Now, if I only knew that…!” he laughs, buying a few seconds, before changing tack: “We went to the USA in 2013 to view the New York Times, the Star and Tribune in Minnesota and the Deseret News, a Mormon paper in Salt Lake City. What they’re finding is that subscription works very well, and we’re now looking at various subscription models.”
I ask him to confirm what he means: “My personal view is that a metered paywall is likely to be the most successful model for newspaper websites.”
For Britain’s biggest-selling regional newspaper to be openly considering a metered paywall could be a defining moment for the industry. After all, many big regional publishers, like Trinity Mirror, have ruled them out; and although the independent CN Group in Cumbria announced that paywalls “are coming” back in spring 2013, they’ve yet to act.
Harrison takes care to underline this is his “personal view”, although the 46-year-old’s wider role as editorial director of the Midland News Association (MNA) – covering the Shropshire Star and a string of weeklies as well as the Wolverhampton daily – surely means it could become the company’s strategy.
We discuss recent tactics from two other regional players: Trinity Mirror’s Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail both have free online apps providing unlimited access to page-turning weekly e-editions and daily breaking news. But Harrison is more interested by the new subscription-based website at DC Thomson’s Press and Journal in Aberdeen, which only allows readers free access to ten articles a month before £10 fees kick in.
We play with the idea: the right number of free stories is important for metered paywalls, so as not to frighten readers away, and setting the price is critical. Harrison imagines a news website with a million unique users: “If you say it’s £1 a week and 98% say ‘I’m not paying’ once the meter starts, that’s still £20,000 a week, thank you very much.”
Perhaps more will pay higher or lower charges, but Harrison’s message is clear: “There’s merit in a metered paywall. But to do that, we’ve got to have a digital offering that’s indispensable, and an audience regular and consistent enough to pay for it. Critical is bringing people on board, and getting them hooked to pay something.”
MNA’s annual turnover has reduced to around £40 million, resulting in a restructuring project this year that’s seen the loss of more than 70 jobs, with the Express & Star and Shropshire Star titles now printing overnight. A painful change – especially for departing staff – but Harrison reminds me it’s a “transitional” period for the entire industry.
“Ten years ago,” he says, “it was a massive print audience and a tiny digital audience served by what some termed ‘the geek squad’ in a room down the corridor. The size of the audience then roughly equates with now, but it’s more digital. It’s all about delivery.
“The character of the paper’s changing from what was a scattergun approach, when I often felt we were restricted by high story counts. Page leads were so short that once you’d got the key facts in, there was no room for any colour. Now it’s less staccato – more story-telling.
“In the past, we prided ourselves on being a live news, multi-edition paper – if it happened at 12.30, it’d be in the paper by 1pm and on the streets by 2pm. But however quick we are in print, we’re not going to beat digital – Twitter, the web and whatever’s next off the block. This has changed our thinking. We’ve got a big digital audience, so let’s serve them with breaking news online, using the paper for more detailed analysis, a lean-back read.”
That digital audience, Harrison says, is running at some 1.5 million unique visitors a month, and is growing fast: they recorded 98 million page views last year, and are on track for 150 million page views in 2014. “Digital devices are going in one direction and we have to adapt the business model to serve readers in the way they want.”
When Harrison became editor, he was given a brief to “modernise”, which he began by looking at the entire workflow: “It had become so convoluted and complicated with things added on, resulting in inefficient gaps. For example, at no point did any one individual have full sight of words, pictures, video, tweets and web comments – it was all different individuals and relying on them talking to each other.
“We stepped back – if we were starting a business tomorrow, how would we do it? The result is a simplified workflow, with more emphasis on reporters getting all the information at the outset, as opposed to it being added as a story goes through the process. That’s pictures, videos, comments, Facebook pages and whatever else, as well as the story.
“We’ve re-christened them ‘multiplatform journalists’ and they get it – particularly the young ones who come with mobiles almost moulded onto their hands. For them, after A-levels, university courses, post-graduate diplomas and everything, to start at the biggest UK evening paper and be told ‘here’s a notepad, get on with it’, they’d look at you as if you were mad. It’s incumbent on us to give them a vehicle worthy of their talents.”
But hold on a minute: there’s more to do – all those online tasks as well as the traditional paper – but fewer journalists. How does that work?
Harrison says: “We need to be as efficient as we can, internally, deciding which jobs to cover, allowing time to investigate the right stories. A double page spread, with unique content, holds readers interest for more than just one day – it can carry them into the next day, the next week.
The changing face of regional news
“And so the news we previously constantly needed to fill will reduce. In the past, we changed editions for the sake of it. A great story in the Staffordshire edition would be taken out for a run-of-the-mill story in the Dudley edition. Now we’ll see a great story carrying through editions because it’s still a great story, just 20 miles down the road.
“In going overnight, the paper’s national content will go down significantly. If it’s big enough, it will be all over the web and on the radio anyway. That print exclusivity is going now. Instead of cramming it into the city final, we’ll end up with a more regional paper.”
But what about traditional, older and poorer readers, perhaps not on the internet, relying on the Express & Star for what’s happening on their own street corners: are they being let down?
Harrison’s not having this: “If you’re getting the Express & Star, that sort of local, church parish pump story is still in there. But it’s about reaching out to hyperlocal websites [to help get those stories]. We’re looking to not see them [hyperlocal sites] as the enemy – they care about the community as much as we do. Rather than stand alone, we want to bring them into an online community with the Express & Star behind it, bringing them a bigger audience as well.
“If you promise ultra-local content, you’ve got to be able to deliver it. No newspaper can offer it today. But these micro-sites are generating it as never before. That’s out there. Our job is to tap into it and work with those people, accessing everything from little table-top sales to sometimes really good stories. We can do all that from the office, and of course we can credit those websites if we use their content.”
Will Harrison’s daily paper still be going in 2024? “If you ask me now, yes: the Express & Star will still be a daily. But look at the changes in the last ten years. And things will change more in the next two years than in the last 30. But I still think there’s a big audience out there who like a print product. Am I naïve? Well, I’m certainly not complacent about digital.
“I’ve been hearing about the death of print since I was at the Chorley Trader [where Harrison began as a 17-year-old trainee in 1985, now defunct]. I think weekly papers will become increasingly important. People have time poverty, but weeklies provide a summary of news that’s not as time sensitive. Weekly circulations have not been as badly affected, and they’re commercially attractive on a more local level, pinning an audience down – it’s much easier to sit down once a week.”
And Harrison remains proud of the number of journalists MNA still employs: “After the current round of redundancies, there’ll be 145 editorial staff covering Wolverhampton, Shropshire and in between, which is still a huge resource. A fantastic resource. And those people are much more flexible: subs writing, reporters suggesting headlines, a news desk much more involved with story placement.”
Down memory lane
Becoming old men for a moment, we remember what newsrooms were like when we were young reporters: “The Chorley Trader had one typewriter,” recalls Harrison. “We had to write stories longhand first and, if passed by the editor, you’d get a turn on the typewriter, then pass this to a pool of three women who re-typed it into the computer!”
After Chorley, he moved to the Garstang Courier for three years, joining the Staffordshire Newsletter in 1989 before our careers overlapped for a few months when we were both Sunday Mercury reporters in Birmingham in 1992.
Harrison left for the Express & Star in 1993 – serving as reporter, chief reporter, deputy news editor and sub-editor before stints at the Shropshire Star as sports editor, chief sub and assistant editor between 1998 and 2002.
He yo-yoed back to the Express & Star to build a formidable reputation as deputy editor, returning to the Shropshire Star as editor in 2011, then back as editor of the Express & Star – which still sells nearly 80,000 copies a day – in April last year.
Harrison’s now determinedly enthusiastic about an online future: “The editor before last at the Express & Star never had to answer an email in his life. Now digital is a huge part of our time and resource. It’s a challenge, but I see it as an opportunity, an exciting development. Journalistically, we want to tell stories as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. Digital allows that more than ever before. To enact that, we have to embrace digital.”
And – if Harrison’s ‘personal view’ becomes MNA strategy – readers might need to embrace metered paywalls.