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Focus on print is ‘road to nowhere’ says Meehan

Most people will be reading regional newspapers in tablet rather than print form within 15 years, a former daily editor has claimed.

John Meehan, who left the Hull Daily Mail this autumn, said focusing exclusively on the print product is “the road to nowhere” and hailed tablet devices such as the iPad as the way forward for the beleaguered industry.

In a wide-ranging article in In Publishing magazine, John also described uploading all newspaper content to the web free of charge as “total madness.”

Although he backed Northcliffe’s strategy of converting small dailies to weeklies, he suggests that newspapers in major towns and cities had “greater longevity” as dailies and could therefore make the transition to digital copy sales via tablets.

Said John: “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.”

John, who spent 28 years as a journalist and 14 as a Northcliffe editor, is now running a media and communications consultancy called Meehan Media.

However he says he “may return” to the sector one day and is anxious for it to thrive, not just survive.

In his article entitled ‘sustaining community journalism in the regions’ he says he ‘supports 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,’ he wrote.

However, he said it was disappointing that the industry has failed to make the great leap forward to genuinely integrated multimedia publishing.

He wrote: “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.”

John went on to say that the integration of print and digital needed to be done intelligently and putting all print content on to the web was “total madness” and was “cannibalising an 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.

“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?”

He added that to sustain journalism required the public to pay for it and for the industry to stop pandering to the digital freeloaders. This would include cover prices to reflect the value the newspaper offers – 50p plus for dailies and £1 plus for bumper weeklies.

On the search for new business models, John wrote: “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.”

He also branded the recent scuppered attempt by the Kent Messenger Group to buy a group of newspapers from Northcliffe Media a ‘disgrace’, adding that the industry did not kick up enough of a fuss about it.

He goes on to say that for regional media to survive it has to 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.”

Read the full article here.




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  • November 24, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I agree with John in most respects, but there is a way forward for weekly print journalism – go back to our roots, before everybody tried to copy the Sun, circa 1983, and produce papers similar to those produced in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the quality of journalism was brilliant by today’s standards. Courts and council were covered properly – every fart and whisper. Lots of people may disagree, but I urge them to check out the weeklies of old. You will marvel at the colour and breadth of their reporting and content. I say weekly. Regional dailies are already dead ducks, almost totally detached from the communities they once served.

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  • November 24, 2011 at 10:02 am

    The decline in newspapers is in line with a decline in content in local newspapers.
    Instead of training local boys and girls, they take graduates from across the country who have little local interest. It is merely a stepping stone on the career ladder.
    In my town, I learn what’s happening in council and on the street from Facebook.
    Sadly, the local paper doesn’t even use it as a source.

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  • November 24, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Again, the old chestnut that ‘free’ content on newspapers is killing newspapers. Are there any studies to support this?

    Newspaper sales are down, because as John correctly says the format that people are reading their news in is changing and the generation that want to read their news in print is dying out and you won’t change this fact by cutting down your websites.

    If I was in charge of a newspaper I’d be far more concerned about homes, jobs and motors advertising migrating to the web that must be far more economically damaging than losing the cover price of the paper.

    If you start putting up paywalls or articles saying ‘refer back to the paper’ that just won’t wash with internet users. They’ll go elsewhere for their news.

    Johnson Press tried a paywall and they have tried the approach that had a small paragraph that said ‘read the newspaper for the full story’ without much success on either side.

    If you try to restrict web content you are just going to kill the digital side as well as the print side, much better to concentrate on the unique things that you can do do on the web, like video, extended picture galleries and user generate content.

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  • November 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

    the future maybe, but not the present. Web ad income is pitiful compared with print, which is propping it up. It’s still from certain local communities want weekly paper stuff on websites and mobile phones- just too dull. Regionals have more scope but they have been wrecked by becoming stale next-day papers instead of evening editions.
    Web will not work well unless top management gets it into their thick skulls that you need dedicated staff- not paper hacks doing yet another job.
    Can’t do a quality web job on the cheap- sorry. Fact of life.

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  • November 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    You have to give away regional content for free online – or someone else will do it. There are plenty of half-decent WordPress bloggers churning out re-nosed press releases and the occasional decent story which, due to the years of cuts in print, is exactly what many of the daily publications now do themselves.
    Besides, when you think about it, newspapers have always effectively given their content away for free as the cost of print and distribution is usually only just paid for by the cover price.
    I agree with Mr Meehan’s thoughts on pad computing being the future of regional news, but the issue that has persistently troubled the large regional publishing companies is how to get the websites making the same sort of money as print once did. The answer is they won’t.
    I think they are capable of making a small, but healthy, profit with a reasonable number of staff, however, the glory days of print are long gone. Whether that’s enough to keep share prices up and the big boys interested in sticking with it remains doubtful.
    This is why I believe the refusal to allow the Kent Messenger Group to buy some Northcliffe titles is a disgrace. The future of regional journalism relies upon smaller, independent companies which will be happy to make a small profit from their free-to-access websites.

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  • November 24, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    While I agree with the sentiments of onlooker’s post, redundancies and cuts in regional papers mean, to the regret of many who work in the industry, that level of reporting just isn’t possible any more.
    Ownership by large media companies (take your pick from Newsquest, Johnson Press, Trinity Mirror) means that hard to come by revenue is driven towards providing profit for shareholders.
    With profits down all over the country bonuses to shareholders are protected while newsrooms are culled.
    Remaining staff simply do not have the time to report to the level of detail. The battle in itself is getting a paper out at all.
    It is a sad fact to admit and as a trainee who takes pride in their job, I certainly wish it wasn’t the case.
    It can be no coincidence that in the current climate it is independently owned newspapers that are proving the most resilient.

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  • November 25, 2011 at 10:34 am

    well said Trainee Reporter. Not a grumpy old hack I presume but someone who should be fired with enthusiasm and possibily still is. But hearing “newsrooms are culled” from a new starter is chilling indeed.
    Good luck in your career.

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