Jobs have gone, circulations slashed, advertisers vanished and publishing companies have recorded multi-million pound losses. Regional publishers will emerge from the pandemic and decide if it is worth rebuilding or cutting and running.
The old cash-cow has almost run dry. For more than a decade, we have seen the orderly, sometimes disorderly, management of decline. Now radical change is urgently needed – with a huge emphasis on digital. We need different models and revenue streams … commission-based partnerships, marketing solutions, sponsored content, selling archives and running events. Getting Google and Facebook to pay for the journalism on their platforms is a must and government intervention, promised in November, is critical. Paywalls, despite early promise, remain a challenge. Elsewhere, titles are seeking contributions. Archant’s sites ask readers to 'keep campaigning local journalism alive'. Meanwhile, the non-subscription model is being developed. Reach’s MyLondon site, for example, has grown to five million monthly users.
Whether these opportunities tempt the corporations to stay is far from certain and more changes in ownership are likely. The takeover of JPI, the fourth largest regional group, by National World will be a big shake-up. The declaration that it will “jettison legacy systems and archaic industrial practices” will be watched closely. The £10.2million price though, considering JP paid £160million for just the Scotsman publications 15 years ago, is a startling indication of the industry’s worth.
Perhaps better opportunities exist for smaller groups with a parochial touch who believe scale and a real local service can be profitable. Iliffe Media is a good example – working on its model, expanding and acquiring while others have struggled.
The biggest opportunity, though, may be for individual journalists who have found themselves with time on their hands. I covered the growth of hyper-local publications for InPublishing in 2019 (bit.ly/3nI5crf). While mainstream publishers have been cutting back, Nub News has been growing and recruiting. It is now a network of hyperlocal news websites in more than 150 towns. There are other start-ups - including Newham Voices and the Hull Story. Expect more. The path is also being paved for organisations to become not-for-profit charities. Those covering public interest news should explore that route. And then there is AI, lurking in the shadows, disguised as both an opportunity and a threat.
Last year caused more damage to publishers than ever before. In America, a Senate report concluded that local newsrooms will “all but vanish in the next few years”. In 2021, we have to ensure that doesn’t happen … not a task for the faint-hearted.
Radical change is urgently needed – with a huge emphasis on digital.
This article was first published in the Publishing Partners Guide, an annual directory distributed with InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.