Sustaining community journalism in the regions

The regional media has not been a happy place to be of late. Declining circulations, deep cost cutting and continuing uncertainty over digital strategy have lead to a loss of confidence. Yet, writes John Meehan, regional media can have a bright future, if those within it fight harder, more intelligently and focus their energies on what really matters.

By John Meehan

It was more than a little ironic - within days of the announcement that I was leaving the regional news industry, I was asked to write this article about its future.

So why take heed of someone who has headed for the exit? Well, mainly because I remain hugely passionate about local and regional journalism and believe that it can and must continue to be one of the cornerstones of our society.

Until now, all but four of the 28 years of my career as a journalist and editor have been spent in regional media. The other four were with a news agency focused strongly on the regional market.

I’ve decided on a career change - everyone should do that every now and then to stay fresh - but my heart remains in regional journalism. I may return to it one day and I am desperately anxious that it doesn’t just survive, but thrives.

By the way, notice that I haven’t referred to local and regional newspapers. I much prefer the term regional media. That’s because the future of the industry cannot be focused predominantly on print. The platform is not important - the content is.

The industry’s corporate structure is certain to change, when conditions allow. That may well include the welcome emergence of new independent publishers but, irrespective of ownership, what is really important - no, absolutely vital - is sustaining vibrant, independent, commercially viable journalism focused on local communities. Without it, those communities and the free, accountable society we treasure will be diminished immeasurably.

So what, in my humble opinion, should be done to sustain this journalism? I suggest the following:

1. We're all in it together

To the outsider, the industry can look like a war zone - management and workers constantly fighting, throwing accusations and insults amid a culture of suspicion and hostility. It’s counter-productive and corrosive.

The truth is, we're all in it together (yes, I still refer to “we” as if I’m inside the industry!) and we will only address the challenges facing us with a unity of purpose.

It starts with leadership from the very top and that has been somewhat deficient in some parts of the industry. The troops in the trenches need to see real leadership, confidence, openness and engagement. I know they will respond, if given reasons to believe in their leaders.

There are positive signs. Northcliffe Media MD Steve Auckland is “walking the walk” and has put a new emphasis on communication and talent development. Johnston Press has made the brave appointment of former BBC and Microsoft digital executive Ashley Highfield as its new MD. He is certain to usher in profound change to that company’s culture.

But it also requires a new approach on the newsroom floor. Journalists must stop fighting losing battles and allowing the National Union of Journalists to send them over the top into the machine-gun fire.

Most journalists realise the industry is under intense pressure and requires fundamental change. They must be part of that change, however uncomfortable that is.

2. Focus on what really matters

The industry has understood that it can no longer afford all that it used to have. Much peripheral activity has been dispensed with or outsourced. Where the paper is printed doesn’t matter; nor where the ads are set; nor where editorial production takes place.

Reduced manpower and funds must be focused on what really matters and what must stay local - content, sales and marketing. If there is a cheaper, more efficient way of doing anything else, adopt it. Otherwise you are wasting scare resources, time and attention.

3. Treasure and develop the newspaper

We should remind ourselves of the power and influence of our core products. Local and regional newspapers have generations of positive heritage; tremendous brand recognition and loyalty; significant readerships; and considerable influence within the communities they serve.

The newspaper is the physical manifestation of the brand. It is the banner under which to rally. It gives credibility to the digital platforms. It is a true pillar of any local community.

So we simply must continue to focus on developing the core title. Make it exceptional in quality and relevance and ensure the cover price reflects the value it offers - 50p plus for dailies; £1 plus for bumper weeklies.

I support totally converting smaller dailies to weeklies. It is commercial logic to offer readers and advertisers a substantial weekly compendium of local life, rather than a flimsy daily offering. I suspect we will see many more titles go weekly over the next year or so.

Newspapers in major towns and cities have greater longevity as dailies - long enough, I believe, to make the transition to digital copy sales via tablets. But, in the meantime, quality and relevance must be paramount. And beware focusing on C2DE readers - what is sometimes seen as the core readership of city dailies. Drop the tabloid treatments, learn restraint as well as impact, and move upmarket - that’s where the money and a sustainable future lies.

4. Integrate intelligently

Regional media businesses have spent years agonising over “the internet”. What do we put on it? Who does it? How do we make money on it? All are valid questions, but the constant questioning and lurches of direction are paralysing the industry. It is fiddling while Rome burns.

I suggest we should simply accept that digital media is now all-pervasive and must be embraced totally, in newsrooms and in advertising sales departments.

Six years ago, my editorial team in Hull embraced video journalism - not as an end in itself, but as a means of changing the culture and working practices from print-obsessed to a multi-media mindset. It is disappointing that the industry has failed to make the great leap forward to genuinely integrated multi-media publishing. Yes, I know the prolonged economic crisis has been a major factor, but the truth is that we have failed to transform in tune with the world around us.

So let's integrate print and digital, but it must be done intelligently. Throwing all of our print content on to the web - or even the best of it - is total madness. It's simply cannibalising unnecessarily our already under-pressure print sales and readership.

But the other extreme - focusing almost exclusively on the paper because it's what pays the rent now - is a road to nowhere. At best, that will achieve greater longevity for the printed product, but it will not maintain or grow audience, or sustain journalism.

We simply have to develop differentiated, complementary and cross-promotional print and digital platforms - many consumer touchpoints, united by brand. We must identify what content is most relevant and works best on which platform. We should make decisions based on consumer behaviour and preference, but also influenced by what drives the greatest commercial return, now and going forward.

For example, why upload to the web the newspaper’s exclusive in-depth splash? Surely it's better to refer to it online; promote the paper's unique content; and drive conversation and follow-up angles on the website and via social media. Hardly rocket science, but does anybody do it, routinely? Indeed, are they allowed to?

And, while on the subject of digital, I am astonished by the scarcity of regional media activity on tablets. Lately, I have become convinced that newspapers will migrate in significant proportion to mobile devices. The iPad is a game-changer for media and the Apple device and the multitude of copy-cats will continue to improve in experience and functionality, while reducing in price. I believe the printed newspaper will survive, but I suspect 10-15 years from now, more people will read tablet equivalents.

Crucially, it is accepted that people will pay for content on tablets and e-readers like Amazon's Kindle. Sustaining journalism will require the public to pay for it and for the industry to stop pandering to the digital freeloaders. Shouldn’t we begin to occupy this territory?

5. Become a trusted voice and influencer across social media

At one time, community issues were debated almost exclusively through the news columns and letters pages of local papers. Not any longer - now the debate rages every day, every hour, every minute across social media networks. Facebook is the platform of choice for millions to conduct their social interactions. Twitter is an amazingly powerful news machine and story source. LinkedIn connects movers and shakers in localities as well as industry sectors.

Editors and journalists must use these platforms, but with clarity of focus. Don't just join the idle chit-chat. There's no value in a meaningless “I'm down the pub” tweet. Engage personably with users to promote the brand and its continuing relevance; extend your circle of trusted contacts and sources; share knowledge; and influence the community. Above all, remind your social media followers and friends of the unique appeal and content of the newspaper!

There’s also a major, directly-commercial opportunity. Local publishers can act as trusted, knowledgeable guides to help local businesses engage with social media and benefit from it.

6. Create an all-company commercial culture

This is simply essential. Journalists can no longer turn their noses up at anything advertising-related. Like it or not (and they should embrace it, if only for reason of self-preservation) journalists have to play their full part in the commercial development of the business.

That means understanding that our editorial content has real value to commercial clients. They will pay for it, but expect quality, time and attention. At the Hull Daily Mail, we brought in more than £200,000 for the business over two years through our Bounce Back campaign, with commercial partners funding and influencing our coverage. No one sold their soul to the devil; the business earned new revenues; the partners appreciated the involvement; and we built lasting relationships.

We must also make commercial content choices - what is most commercially beneficial; most relevant to our audience; unique to us? More of the same will get us nowhere.

And being commercial also means appreciating the value of relationships with the business community. Win friends and influence people in local business networks and you will find the effort repaid.

Finally on this point, it’s clear that we can no longer pay our way just by selling advertising space. Our customers have too many alternative options and expect so much more. We have to step into their shoes, understand their businesses and markets, and develop and deliver print and digital marketing campaigns that work for them and for us.

It's a major change that will require a transformation in skills, culture and, probably, personnel within commercial teams.

7. Flex your un-used, or under-used, muscles

When advertising just came to us, the business model was simple - reach readers by reporting the news and sell that readership to advertisers. But that isn't sufficient now or going forward.

Regional publishers need to flex different commercial muscles and build up others that have grown weak through under-use. I believe there are significant opportunities to develop and extend our brands without drifting from the core competencies of journalism, sales and marketing.

An obvious example is events. Johnston Press identified this opportunity some time ago and make significant revenues from high-margin events ranging from business awards, to country pursuits and pet shows. All of them also reinforce the brand. It's good to see other publishers taking heed.

Another major opportunity is public relations and marketing. An enormous industry has developed in PR while the mainstream news industry has declined. I recall two years ago at the Society of Editors conference, Neil Benson, editorial director of Trinity Mirror Regionals, suggested regional publishers should launch PR agencies. It prompted a predictable “selling out” outcry on trade websites, but he was right. Recently in Hull, we launched an arm's-length PR company focused on the emerging renewable energy industry. It's making good progress and the Hull editorial team welcome it as a positive move to diversify the business.

8. Collaborate to mutual benefit

The turf wars of the past belong in the past. To have a sustainable future, regional publishers must understand that the way forward is collaboration across the industry. Our enemies are not other regional publishers. Individually we are weak; together we are stronger and better able to counter the challenges of the likes of Google or Craigslist.

The message seems to have hit home, certainly in terms of press utilisation and the adoption by other groups of pure play platforms such as DMGT's Jobsite.

There are opportunities at a more local level too. It's interesting to note that two of my former colleagues, Steve Anderson-Dixon and Phil Inman, are now running the neighbouring publishing businesses of Trinity Mirror and Midlands News Association in the West Midlands. I genuinely don't know, but I would not be surprised if they found ways to co-operate to mutual benefit. I would be amazed if they got worked up about scrapping against each other for sales of the Birmingham Mail or Wolverhampton Express & Star in the Brummie suburbs.

9. Make a big noise

In the attention economy, blandness is death. Regional media can’t just report. It has to make a big noise, through campaigns, events and partnerships. Be your local community’s cheerleader in chief - evangelise life is local and promote consistently the immense value you bring to your locality.

For example, just before I moved on, the Hull Daily Mail launched the “Battle for Brough” to save 900 jobs under threat at the BAE Systems plant at Brough. It’s an uphill battle, but the campaign has energised the local community and enhanced the newspaper’s reputation.

10. Shout up for the industry

We are, far too often, our own worst enemies. We focus on negatives - eg. falling circulations - rather than positives - robust readerships. We fight among ourselves rather than uniting to address the industry’s challenges. And “pundits” within the industry - albeit mostly from the national sector - predict our doom.

We’ve got to get on the front foot; accentuate the positives (they do exist); and shout out for our industry.

And that includes fighting much harder for a fair deal from Government and the regulators. Much has been said in favour of the regional news industry, but little has been done to actually support it. We don't want subsidy, just the opportunity to develop, including through changes of ownership and consolidation.

The recent decision to effectively scupper the sale by Northcliffe Media of newspapers in Kent to the Kent Messenger Group was a disgrace. Did the industry kick up enough of a fuss about it? Did the NUJ protest? I believe we have to be much more proactive and purposeful in fighting for a fair deal for an industry that employs thousands of skilled workers and is more vital to the Big Society and community well-being than any other.

A substantial agenda for sustainability

So that's a substantial agenda to achieve sustainability for regional journalism. Some of the issues are being grasped; on others, the penny has yet to drop. Sometimes I observe things in this wonderful industry that have me shaking my head, but more often I see reasons for optimism.

I believe regional journalism will survive and thrive. And belief is what the industry needs above all to find a sustainable future.