Steep circulation declines for many regional titles have forced publishers to ask some pretty fundamental questions, such as, what do our readers want from us? Peter Sands spoke to fifteen leading regional editors to get their views on the essential ingredients for a successful local paper.
Some of the ingredients for a must-buy newspaper.
Brace yourselves. Next year is 2019, doomsday for the printed word. It is the year that futurist Ross Dawson, in his Extinction Timeline, predicted the newspaper would become insignificant.
It isn't going to happen of course. The printed Sun and Daily Mail both sell almost a million and a half copies a day. Metro has seen its readership rise to make it the third best-read daily title. The Evening Standard, which was selling 600,000 in 2010 – the year Dawson made his prediction – circulates 850,000 copies around London. And the i, which did not exist in 2010, sells more than 260,000. The printed newspaper is far from insignificant. But even these successes can’t gloss over the trend. The Sun has a long way to fall but its circulation since 2010 has been almost cut in half. In the same period, the sales of The Guardian, The FT and the Daily Record have more than halved.
And if the big boys are struggling, spare a thought for the regionals. I reel when looking at the ABC figures. When I edited The Northern Echo, 25 years ago, it was selling 90,000. Today, it sells just over 22,000. The Argus in Brighton was selling 88,000. Today, it sells just over 10,000. There are twenty daily titles selling less than 15,000, half of them below 10,000. How long before they follow others, most recently the Gloucestershire dailies, and go weekly? Or online only?
Against that backdrop, is it really feasible for regional newspapers to thrive … or are they facing a depressing spiral of managing decline? I asked fifteen daily and weekly editorial executives and all were optimistic their presses would be rolling long after 2019. But what do they need to make sure of it? Each one explained the anatomy of their newspaper – listing the content needed to make it a must-buy. This was their Top 20.
The essential ingredients for a modern regional newspaper: 1 Local news and sport; 2= Readers' letters, columnists and opinion; 2= Puzzles; 4= Classified advertising; 5= Photographs; 5= BMDs; 5= Nostalgia; 5= Adverts; 5= Promotions and quality reader offers; 10= Business news; 10= Investigations and campaigns; 12= Property; 12= Supplements / magazines / entertainment; 12= TV listings; 15= National and international news; 15= Motors; 17= Local information; 17= Awards and events; 17= Humour; 20= Food and drink; 20= Jobs; 20= Weather.
Hardly surprisingly, news and sport tops the list. But what does news really mean? And are all of those on the list really driving sale? Here is a look at some of the key areas.
“If breaking stories are online, newspapers can no longer rely on them as
the main selling point.”
If breaking stories are online, newspapers can no longer rely on them as the main selling point. So, what is? Many editors don't have the resources to cover councils or plough through reports or agendas. Some have also given up on court reporting, although Mike Sassi, editor of the Nottingham Post, believes that is a mistake. "I still employ two senior journalists, full-time, to cover crown and magistrates courts. Their stories are frequently the best in the paper."
Rachael Sugden, editor of the weekly Gloucester Echo and Citizen, believes in community news, the WI reports, church groups and golden weddings, that do not go online. She says: "We don’t (as a general rule) send reporters to cheque presentations but we would if we thought there was a story there."
Off-diary stories are regarded as 'lifeblood' but they are thin on the ground. Tim Robinson, who has edited regional titles and is in charge of Johnston Press’s design and content teams, says: "The biggest loss has been the idiosyncratic tale told to a reporter out there at a meeting, in the library or, yes, the pub. These stories haven’t totally disappeared, but are rarer jewels now."
Darren Thwaites, editor-in-chief at the Newcastle Chronicle, Sunday Sun and Journal, acknowledges that breaking news is not his newspapers' main role. "Don't get hung up on trying to break news (that's an online game now) but ensure every edition is a fully-rounded product, bringing the best of everything together. Newspapers must provide a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Why would anyone pay 70p if they weren't going to benefit?"
The front page, says Sassi, is more important than ever. "Understandably, fewer readers are now loyal, so your front page has to grab people."
Tone is also crucial. Robinson believes papers need to offer surprise – something different on the front and inside every day or week. "We need humour and entertainment. Readers want fun and we should lighten up. We need great visual storytelling – timelines, graphics, photo overlays, digests – anything to grab hold of the eyeballs and stop people turning the page. We need positivity. People want to be told where they live is great. And we need rhythm. Lots of short reads, some medium and some long – all perfectly constructed." Richard Prest, editor of the Sunday Post, has a more direct strategy: "Bloody good, controversial, bold, interesting, thought-provoking stories."
“Parents will still pay for a printed picture or a mention of their kid
scoring a goal.”
The editors list sport highly, but only those with well-followed football or rugby clubs count it as a major seller. The Chronicle in Newcastle and the Echo in Liverpool invest in every cough and splutter from St James's, Anfield and Goodison and it pays off. The grassroots coverage has suffered, though, and some editors say it really needs to be revisited. Children's sport is huge. And parents will still pay for a printed picture or a mention of their kid scoring a goal.
READER’S LETTERS, COLUMNISTS AND OPINION
Opinion is second on the list. But readers don't buy a paper for its leader column and the 'green ink' brigade is definitely dwindling. Too often, half a dozen contributors prop up the letters page. Some editors get around it by republishing, in the paper, material from the Facebook pages. Strong columnists are crucial but they are hard to find. Opinion, though, remains key. David Bourn, editorial director at Scottish Provincial Press in Inverness, says: "It is vital that a newspaper focuses on the positive and is an area’s most vociferous advocate. Champion all that is good locally and fight to change anything that isn’t!"
Surprisingly, puzzles are in joint second place. Gavin Thompson, editor of the Western Daily Press, says their impact can't be under-estimated: "We carry two pages of puzzles most days, eight on a Friday and four on a Saturday. And woe betide you if you get them wrong. When we changed our supplier, we ran a consultation with readers." Maybe those neglecting their puzzles are missing a trick.
Pictures of people have always been a reason to buy. They still mean more in print than online. We can't have enough pictures of people who have grown outsized vegetables, says Robinson. As photography departments have been pared back, harnessing the readers and their mobile phones has become essential.
INVESTIGATIONS AND CAMPAIGNS
That investigations and campaigns only come tenth shows a real disparity between the titles. Johnston Press has its own investigations unit. Bigger titles, such as the Sunday Post, argue, they couldn’t be more important. Others do not have the time or people to dedicate to off-diary work. I covered the importance of investigations in a previous article.
“Champion all that is good locally and fight to change anything that
SUPPLEMENTS / MAGAZINES / ENTERTAINMENT
If, as the argument goes, print readers have more time on their hands than the busy onliners – long reads and added value are key for print. The WDP's biggest sale by a country mile is on Saturday. Thompson says: "A big reason for that is our magazine. People have more time on a Saturday, particularly our demographic who are more likely to have older or grown up children. So, the magazine is pitched to them with content around gardening, food, walks – typical weekend leisure activities, in addition to local and syndicated national features."
AWARDS AND EVENTS
Those who do them swear that awards create a true connection with the community. The Northern Echo's Local Heroes awards have run for eighteen years and are always a sell-out. In Bath, there are sports awards, Heart of Bath Awards and business awards. They can work well in print but don’t always find the same audience online. It is all part of standing up for the readers, being their champion. And if the newspaper doesn't do it, who else?
Plundering the archives is cheap and can galvanise readers to respond. It leads to supplements and even books. The only surprise is that some editors don't include it in their top ten.
“We can't have enough pictures of people who have grown outsized
So, one final question: What are the key factors for a modern newspaper to thrive?
* David Powles, editor of the Eastern Daily Press: "If we remain relevant, we remain alive, it’s as simple as that."
* Sassi: "Investment in staff who can provide quality material that is different from websites."
* Sugden: "If we don’t create something readers want, we don’t have a customer. The challenge is selling important local stories we know people should read in a way that makes them want to read them."
* Mike Crutchley, editor of the Bury Times Group: "It is more important than ever to build our reputation as a source of reliable information with a (hopefully) increasing and younger audience.”
* Neil Hodgkinson, editor of the Hull Daily Mail: "Close contact with the communities whether through patch reporters or events. If you lose touch with what people like or think, then you are dead."
* Prest: "Remember why you exist. You are a trusted local brand and should stick to your principles. There is still a need for trusted, impartial reporting. However, monetising that is the issue!"
So, there you have it – thoughts from the frontline on the anatomy of a successful print publication serving a local community. If newspapers are to fend off Ross Dawson's prediction, they will need to embrace all of these and more. But they will also need to have talented and motivated journalists, a readership willing to give print a chance, a sound financial model and a management which really believes that print has a future. It will be a challenging year.
“If we remain relevant, we remain alive, it’s as simple as that.”