The Digital Transformation Journey 

Regional news media

David Higgerson, chief audience officer, Reach plc, tells Ciar Byrne about how the regional news media sector is managing the digital transformation journey.

By Ciar Byrne

Regional news media

Where is regional news media now on the digital transformation journey?

David Higgerson, chief audience officer at Reach plc, whose portfolio includes nine national and over 110 regional newsbrands, believes journalism is on a clear path to a sustainable future. To achieve that, he says regional news media needs a mix of reliable revenue streams, and a relationship with audiences built on trust.

He says: “On the revenue side, too many people are too quick to write off advertising or exaggerate the negative impact the digital ad market has on journalism. We need multiple revenue streams, as we had in print. But crucially, and unlike print, those revenue streams are most sustainable when they are aligned with audience goals. If you reach more people, you will earn more from advertising. If you do it in a way which makes readers come back more often and share what you’re doing, that’s even better.”

For some publishers, subscriptions might be a way of sustaining local news output, he adds: “the more revenue streams the better”.

Over the last fifteen years, Reach has had to transform the way it works several times, moving from print, to digital, to web first, to audience first. The guiding principle of all these various newsroom transformations has been to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Higgerson says: “We want to reach more people, more often and be part of their daily lives. The changes in revenue has brought the need to keep connected with an audience much closer to the heart of everything we do. That has meant newsrooms becoming data-informed, being prepared to challenge what we’ve always done, and develop new gut instincts. It has also meant working out what really is important in local journalism, and how we convey that to readers. By being ‘audience first’ we can build relationships with readers based on what they want.”

Key milestones

  • Proving that print circulation trends do not worsen if your newsroom is audience first. Our papers look very different, but our circulation performance remained consistent even after we focused more on digital.
  • Demonstrating that traditional journalism can reach large audiences if you consider presenting it differently - liveblogging a planning meeting, for example.
  • Taking the audience-led model to create new forms of storytelling, such as a focus on explainer – traditionally the sidebar in print but now often the centre-piece of what we do.
  • Sustained audience growth: This is the most challenging, because a big change can deliver a year one improvement, but how do you maintain that into year two? This is why engagement is so important.
  • Seeing experiments become business as usual.

Lessons learnt

  • Change is constant, and it can be draining. But we need to focus more on why we’re in the business and keep an eye on that at all times.
  • Communication is essential at all times. There are enough voices outside of the industry who are quick to pass judgement but you have to go back a very long way to find a time when so many people were reading local news and talking about it.
  • Beware of shiny things. We should always experiment, but we need to do so in the context of what we’re trying to achieve.
  • Create space to experiment within the newsroom. Some of our most successful formats have come from experiments in newsrooms.

Where does regional news media need to get to and how does it get there?

Higgerson believes regional publishers need to think less about where they need to get to in terms of digital and more about where they need to get to with readers. “We need to constantly ask how we can enhance the lives of readers through what we do,” he says.

He adds: “We’re read by more people than ever before, and that’s great, but there are lots of opportunities for us to be more relevant to people in different parts of their lives. Too often, the industry narrows its focus to just local news, and local newspapers have never been just about local news. We also need to ask ourselves what we’re going to do to reach people who don’t feel represented by us. It’s one thing to be useful to people, but another to represent a wider range of people.”

What does the future hold?

Reach plc recently announced that most of its staff will work permanently from home, with only fifteen remaining newsroom hubs. Higgerson explains: “Staff surveys before Christmas pointed to the fact that a majority of staff wanted a flexible way of working in the future. We also know that our newsrooms are the people, not the bricks and mortar, and we want to keep investing in journalism. We will be investing in changing the fifteen hub newsrooms we will work from in the future, and also ensuring that people working further away from hubs can regularly meet.”

Regional news media SWOT

STRENGTHS:

Our content can be read anywhere, by anyone interested, and we have more tools than ever at our disposal to catch their attention. That’s a huge strength if we’re prepared to make the most of it. We should see the challenge of getting people to read the journalism we value as empowering, not as a backward step.

WEAKNESSES:

Many people will cite revenue, but it is worth remembering that if you have an audience, you’ll be appealing to advertisers. A much bigger weakness is whether readers place as much value on journalism, and the processes of journalism, as we do.

OPPORTUNITIES:

The last decade has surely taught us that above all else, we need to have readers to survive, and readers who we listen to, and who we treat with respect.

THREATS:

The threat is if we don’t do that. There are too many people out there ready to do us down. Social media makes it easy for people to communicate directly to people, without a fact-checking filter. We need to stress the importance of that in a way which isn’t preachy but wins people over.

This article is part of our special feature on The Digital Transformation Journey, originally published in April in conjunction with The Publishing Show. The feature contains the following six articles:

National news media, with Dominic Carter

Regional news media, with David Higgerson

Consumer media, with Jess Burney

B2B media, with John Barnes

Customer media, with Ann Hartland

Scientific / academic media, with Sara Sharman