FEATURE 

The regional press in 2022

This (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has put incredible pressure on the publishing sector. What will the regional press look like when it’s all over? With the help of some leading industry figures, Peter Sands indulges in some crystal ball gazing.

By Peter Sands

The regional press in 2022
(From the left): Doug Wills, Neil Benson, Alastair Machray, James Mitchinson.

Those Covid-19 newspaper headlines certainly made brutal reading. 'Reach cuts 550 jobs'. 'Up to 180 jobs go at the Guardian'. 'The Evening Standard cuts its 167 newsroom staff by 69’. In March, the Standard halved its distribution to just over 400,000 copies. Metro, an amazing success story under the editorship of Ted Young, saw its figures drop at one point from more than 1.4 million to just over 300,000. The circulation figures of regional papers also made grim reading.

The Manchester Evening News, unable to give away complimentary copies as businesses closed, slipped by 53 per cent, leaving it with a paid-for circulation of 13,933. Many newspaper titles were ditched, unlikely to resurface. Advertising – travel, restaurants, shops, cinemas – was hit hard.

Even the government was worried. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden pleaded with people to buy newspapers, “the country’s fourth emergency service”, after saying the pandemic had caused the “biggest existential crisis” in the history of the press.

The next few months will see publishers firefighting – clawing back revenues and audiences and desperately balancing the books. But what about the longer term?

I asked editors and executives for their assessments of the impact Covid-19 might have on newspapers in, say, two years’ time. Understandably, some declined to go on the record – not wanting to “commit to a plan and then be held hostage”. Others were pessimistic. One chief executive said: “Some of what is happening is brutal. Anyone who was vulnerable before this is clearly toast.”

Others took the view that the crisis presents a chance to introduce radical changes that are more difficult in normal times. Here is their (and my) crystal ball gazing for 2022.

The crisis presents a chance to introduce radical changes that are more difficult in normal times.

1. A different money tree

This is the big one. The large profits of yesteryear, particularly in the regions, are long gone. Advertisers are suffering and will be reluctant to fork out for anything that doesn’t offer genuine value. The growth in digital hasn’t really been successfully monetised and, in most cases, print remains the bigger revenue-earner. Subscriptions grew during lockdown, good news for the FT and The Times, but making paywalls work at a regional level is nigh on impossible. With a severe recession upon us, the signs are not good. The successful publisher in 2022 will need a smorgasbord of revenue streams – including commission-based partnerships, offering marketing solutions, sponsored content, selling archives and running events. All of this will require committed and creative staff. Even then, we will need help – crowdfunding, investment from philanthropic supporters and maybe the government (well, it seemed to bale out everyone else). Doug Wills, managing editor of the Evening Standard, is clear: "Finding new commercial markets and maximising the existing ones will dominate the thinking of boardrooms."

2. Change of ownership

Plenty of newspaper groups have changed hands in the last few years. Expect to see more. There may even be a trend for the return of newspaper ownership to private companies and individuals. There are journalists who could make a decent living out of a weekly newspaper but could the same paper make the profits demanded by the big PLCs?

3. The end of the newsroom?

Publishers, rightly, took pride in how home-working was achieved. Neil Benson, former group executive editor at Trinity Mirror, says: "The way every publisher managed to switch from office-based working to home-working in a matter of days, without the reader noticing, was a staggering achievement.”

Doug Wills says that at the Standard, it was a 100 per cent switch with a decision made within an hour of Boris Johnson announcing a London shutdown. "A trial run saw the editorial staff bring out a midday edition in a single day. Then, en-masse, they were instructed to leave the office to bring out a trial remote special edition in the afternoon, before switching to producing a normal paper the following day. The dedication of the editorial and technical staff was outstanding."

So, does that mean the demise of the newsroom and the rise of the kitchen table?

Alastair Machray, who stood down from the Liverpool Echo during lockdown after reaching 25 years as a daily editor, believes it might. "The industry will see that the huge revenues lost through Covid can be mitigated by getting out of big, expensive offices. The impact will be felt on city centre office developments which will fail due to lack of tenants. Huge, urban white elephants will be the consequence."

Benson recognises that publishers will downsize but has reservations. "Although we know that 100 per cent home working in editorial is possible, I don't think it's desirable, from either a creative or a health and well-being perspective.” At the very least, hot-desking, occasional drop-ins and home-working at nights and weekends is a likely way forward for many publishers.

4. Fewer dailies, more weeklies

The latest circulation figures show dozens of daily papers selling fewer than 10,000. With staffing, production and distribution costs each day, few will continue to be viable. Those papers – including the Torquay Herald Express, Lincolnshire Echo, Scunthorpe Telegraph – that changed frequency nine years ago bought themselves longevity. It is a bitter pill to swallow but a number of dailies will hit the tarmac if they don’t change quickly.

5. Fewer people, different skills

Few newsrooms will have the same headcount as before Covid. Benson says: “Editors will put a premium on flexible, well-rounded journalists, with strong digital skills – not just knowing how to write a good tweet but good knowledge of analytics and how to use social media to grow audiences and deepen engagement.” The newsgathering will be left increasingly to information and images from citizens and social media and the emphasis will be on editing, fact-checking, tackling fake news (perhaps with the help of artificial intelligence). The journalism courses will need to reassess what they do and work closely with editors.

6. Less print, more digital

The changeover from print to digital will speed-up massively. Benson says: "As an editor, I spent years trying – without long-term success – to reverse what was then a gentle but relentless circulation decline. The downward trend has accelerated enormously in recent years, and the pandemic has worsened it further. Some buyers may come back but once the buying habit is broken, it's extremely difficult to repair.” Those that find a digital-led model that makes a sustainable profit will be the winners in 2022.

7. More hyperlocal newsletters

I wrote about the growth of the hyperlocals in InPublishing last year. Covid-19 has left hundreds of very good journalists with the time and opportunity to set up local news brands. While mainstream publications were cutting back, Nub News launched three new websites in one week with an editor hired for each. More hyperlocals are guaranteed by 2022.

8. More home delivery

During lockdown, many papers offered free home delivery. The Standard’s initial drop to 400,000 copies quickly rose to 500,000, largely because of the immediate launch of a door-to-door delivery across twenty London boroughs. A direct relationship with the print readers could prove vital.

The successful publisher in 2022 will need a smorgasbord of revenue streams.

So, what are the key lessons learned from Covid?

James Mitchinson, editor of daily newspaper of the year The Yorkshire Post, believes putting the interests of the readers first is fundamental. "If the pandemic has taught me anything, it has cemented my view that publishers who create content for the betterment of the people and places they serve will prevail. We need to re-engineer the business model but I do not believe we have a choice but to say we have the best interests of our readers, their families and the communities in which they live front and centre – nothing else. Those who persist with the temptation that is negative listicles, divisive rhetoric, low-rent titillation, topspun headlines and the like – chasing clicks-for-quids – cannot and must not be rewarded.”

Machray recognises the future is digital but believes print has been resilient and is more optimistic about its future than he was in March.

“The early digital adopters will have built strong online audiences that will enable them to continue with an effective dual-platform strategy with print remaining profitable and powerful. The digital naysayers will find slightly less tread on the print tyre and will close down more quickly.

"The weak will focus on survival or exit strategies. The strong will focus initially on consolidation and by Year Two perhaps be ready to see what opportunities exist for acquisition of businesses in the high dependency wards."

Wills is also positive. "I’m a firm believer in that there will be a future for both the traditional print media and digital for years to come. Covid is turning out to be a menace to the media as well as to world health. But as long as we can maintain good quality, lively journalism, we have to trust that this will be a strong enough antidote and will keep our circulations going strong."

Benson, who is helping publishers rebuild their businesses after Covid, believes that moving from office to home working overnight showed we can move mountains. The key lesson is for publishers to "apply the same urgency and resolve to defining their post-Covid business strategy." His advice:

  • Stop clinging to print as if it's a life raft. For the vast majority, it isn't.
  • Think radically about your business objectives and the organisational structure required to achieve them.
  • Make sure your (smaller) team is made up of bright, digitally-skilled, people and give them their head.
  • Invest in your newsroom managers' leadership skills. They're going to need them.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly brutalised the newspaper industry but a crisis is often the catalyst for much-needed change. The press may be divided on many issues but all agree that the pandemic has changed the landscape radically and irreversibly. Hard thinking needs to be done quickly to ensure we stay in business. I will report back in two years’ time on how we fared.

Publishers who create content for the betterment of the people and places they serve will prevail.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.