The media world is finally realising that local and regional journalism matters. Let me explain this huge but vague statement.
With regional newspapers on their very last printed legs, the only possible future is to succeed with digital. But how can this happen when advertisers are still only prepared to spend a smidgeon online of what they used to spend in print?
One answer, many voices are saying, is to erect paywalls, and regional publishers have launched various experiments across the UK. The mantra is that quality journalism costs money, and so readers may have to directly pay for that. However, readers need convincing that there’s something worth reading for this metered approach to work.
This theme was pressed home by Tracy De Groose, chief executive of industry body Newsworks, in her address to the Society of Editors conference in November. She said: “As an industry, we’ve been selling our advertising space and not our journalism. It has lost us about one billion pounds of ad revenue over the last decade … now we have a perfect window to start getting the investment back into journalism.”
Ailing regional publishers can’t afford to do this by themselves, which is why digital giants like Facebook and the state (via the BBC) have invested millions to fund hundreds of local democracy and community reporters. The BBC has done this to help justify its publicly funded existence; Facebook has followed suit for various reasons, not least because its dominance needs quality grassroots journalism. Expect more of the same.
Various other local journalism projects are being funded through the Google News Initiative, such as the Project Neon partnership with publisher Archant. This multi-million pound experiment aims to create what Archant’s chief content officer Matt Kelly has described as “a sustainable business based on high quality, useful community content”, with an initial three new websites for “underserved” local areas.
Meanwhile, the remaining, hungry regional giants are still fighting over the industry’s scraps. This has seen both Reach and Newsquest playing with the idea of buying all or parts of the soon-to-dissolve JPIMedia. There was no clear result when submitting this report, but it’s possible the industry could soon largely become a duopoly.
Either that or what arguably masquerades as altruistic investments from digital giants could one day morph into fresh ownership structures. Just imagine Google owning a string of local online titles in places like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, for example, or Facebook running outfits in Birmingham, Derby and Leicester.
Too far-fetched? Maybe. But we all know their obsession with farming data, and this could be driving their interest in helping to raise the quality of regional journalism.
Just imagine Google owning a string of local online titles in places like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.
This article was first published in the Publishing Partners Guide 2020, which was distributed with the January / February issue of InPublishing magazine.