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Ian Carter: Rethinking what local means to the audience

Our series of extracts from the new edition of What Do We Mean By Local? continues this week with five more chapters from the soon-to-be-published book focusing on the future of the local press.

Co-edited by John Mair, Richard Keeble and Neil Fowler, the book charts the rise and fall and possible rise again of local journalism.

In today’s extract, Kent Messenger Group editorial director Ian Carter looks at the prospects for the industry.

Traditional publishers know they need to deliver news and advertising in the way that an individual reader wants to consume it, says Ian, left. The challenge is how.

On the wall of the chairman’s office at KM Group headquarters pride of place is given to the first edition of the Maidstone Telegraph, the newspaper that would become the Kent Messenger. Launched on New Year’s Day in 1859, the Telegraph set out its stall in a single column editorial nestled alongside the railway timetables and advertisements for cheesemongers and snuff  suppliers. ‘The Cheap Press has now become an established fact,’ it stated. ‘Maidstone, with its population of 28,000, offers a fair field for the establishment of a cheap newspaper. The Maidstone Telegraph will be a close and observant recorder of public events, a fearless opponent of public abuses and a straightforward advocate of public claims.’ In the following 153 years Maidstone and its surrounding district has changed greatly – the local media landscape even more so. In 1859, the Telegraph editorial team would have taken confidence from the knowledge their readers were never more than the turn of a page away from a familiar face.

For a community that lived, worked and socialised with their neighbours, life truly was local and their weekly newspaper reflected all that mattered to them. The KM Group of 2012 remains family-owned and fiercely committed to Kent. The company has grown to encompass newspapers, radio stations and websites serving almost every major conurbation in the county, stretching from Dover and Thanet in the east across to prosperous Tonbridge and Malling in the west. But though our guiding principle remains unchanged – to make Kent a better place to live and work – we have had to rethink what local means to our audience. Our newspapers have grown at the same rate as the towns and cities they serve, but as people’s horizons expand the challenge for the KM Group has been to ensure our products remain as vital to people’s lives as the Maidstone Telegraph was all those years ago.

By definition, we cover a tightly defined geographical area – Kent and the unitary authority of Medway, the latter comprising of the towns of Chatham, Rochester, Gillingham, Strood and Rainham. So how do we meet the needs of the modern day Kent Messenger reader, who may think nothing of the commute to London to work or socialise, and who is more likely to be found at the Emirates or Stamford Bridge than following the fortunes of Maidstone United? And how do we balance that challenge against the needs of those areas where community spirit still runs deep, such as the Isle of Sheppey – an area where life is local to the extent that legend tells of one octogenarian who has never even visited the ‘mainland’? The answer is to accept that the reader, not the publisher, defines their own boundaries and their own areas of interest.

We can no longer take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to our media, and have had to loosen the traditional shackles to allow our audience to receive news and information in a manner of their choosing. Sir Ray Tindle, the 84-year-old publisher of more than 200 weekly newspapers, believes that ‘if you had a newspaper for every street it would sell’, adding: ‘The average person isn’t interested in the wider area but they are very interested in their immediate locality.’ For many of our readers and many of our newspapers that is still the case. There remains a huge demand for our printed products. More than   100,000 KM newspapers are sold every week, and late in 2011 we bucked the industry trend for closure and consolidation by launching a new paid-for newspaper in the growing town of Sittingbourne. In the right market and in the right conditions, this can still be the route to success. There is still a substantial audience who treat our traditional weekly newspapers as the first port of call for their news, with the ‘happy and sad’ adverts on our BMD pages as important as the choice of front page splash. But equally there is a growing audience whom we will not reach through these traditional methods.

In order to grow and flourish, we know we need to deliver our news and advertising in the way that an individual reader wants to consume it, rather than relying on our editors to provide a weekly summary of the news we believe they will be interested in. In truth, this is not new territory for the company. The KM Group has never been backwards in exploring new avenues to reach audiences. We decided at the end of the 1990s that local evening papers – particularly those close to London – were a challenged business model. At the time we published the daily Kent Today, which had formerly been known as the Evening Post, covering the whole of the county.

Converting from Daily to Weekly Editions

We began the process of exiting the daily newspaper market by converting the Friday edition of Kent Today for the weekly Medway Messenger. Two years later we dropped the other daily editions of Kent Today, introducing a Monday Messenger to start the week. What had once been a struggling daily title was now a strong bi-weekly product. The wider newspaper industry is now following a similar path, hoping it can transform a time-poor, dwindling daily readership into a solid weekly audience. Newspapers from Exeter to Scunthorpe have taken this approach over the past year, with further big guns expected to follow suit in 2012. However, the KM Group’s withdrawal from the daily market was no simple retreat – at the same time we were experimenting with reaching our audiences in new ways as we began to transform the company from a straightforward newspaper publisher into a multimedia operation. This transformation began at the end of the 1990s when we were relatively early adopters in the digital age. After experimenting with a variety of options at the tail end of that decade, we launched in the year 2000, with the site acting as an umbrella for its various weekly newspapers.

The launch of Kent Online saw dyed-in-the-wool newspaper reporters and advertising teams awaken to the possibilities of the digital world. Today, Kent Online has an audience of 350,000 unique monthly visitors and remains a beacon of excellence in the industry. This transformation continued when KM Group expanded into local radio, with the acquisition of a local station in Thanet. The following four years saw stations in Canterbury, Folkestone, Dover, Maidstone and Medway and Ashford join the fold and now all operate under the kmfm banner. Now we are on the next stage of that journey, with a snapshot of the KM Group in 2012 showing a company offering its news services in a variety of ways designed to meet individual readers and listeners’ needs. Our radio stations – their output unashamedly populist and commercial – deliver news in 60-second bites every hour to listeners who may never have paid for one of our newspapers.

Kent Online, meanwhile, offers readers the opportunity to find the news that is relevant to their lives, from pan-Kent headlines down to local village gossip. Our editorial – and increasingly our commercial teams too – are plugged fully into the world of social media, with Twitter feeds and Facebook sites delivering our news to tens of thousands more people. Users of our What’s On website, which launched in 2011, define their own areas of interest, setting their own parameters for search results. Similarly, contextual advertising means our customers can define which online visitors are shown their adverts. This functionality will now expand across our other digital services, whether people are accessing them through desktop computer and laptops or, increasingly likely, their phones or tablets.

Print – Still at the Heart of the Operations

As people gain the ability to select their geo-tagged news from postcode level upwards, it really will be the age of self-editing. None of that diminishes the importance of print, which will continue to be at the heart of the KM Group for years to come. Here too though we must continue to develop our editorial approach. We know that in today’s 128-page Kent Messenger we can no longer assume readers will see a recognisable face on every other page – maybe not even every edition. Nor will our weekly newspapers be the natural environment for breaking news stories. Instead, our editors are charged with finding those subjects and topics that really do cut across everyone’s lives – the areas of interest that, whether people feel it or not, make them ‘local’.

We have long worked on the basis that the best way to capture new readers is when they put their roots down and start families. Accordingly, education, health, transport and crime are at the forefront of our editors’ minds when setting their news agenda. When plans were mooted to move maternity services from Maidstone to Tunbridge Wells, the Kent Messenger acted as the focal point for the anger felt at the proposals. Over many years, the Messenger fiercely fought the plans, fearing it would lead to the inevitable downgrading of all services in Maidstone. The same battle rages today in Canterbury, where similar proposals would mean no more babies being born in the historic city’s hospital. It is such campaigns that will ensure those print titles serving the main population centres in Kent remain relevant. But that will be only one strand to our multimedia offering.

No journalist can think of themselves as a reporter solely for one of our print titles. Readers expect more, and our teams have to be as comfortable grabbing a 30-second audio quote, filing video footage and Tweeting a 140-word court update as they are writing a 400-word page lead. However, people in Kent choose to define what is of interest to them, and what local means to them, the KM Group’s role is to ensure it is their first port of call.

Note on the author

Ian Carter is Editorial Director of the KM Group, a family-owned publisher with newspapers, websites and radio stations across Kent. He is a former senior broadcast journalist at BBC News Online, Editor-in-Chief at Northcliffe South East and Assistant Editor at the Argus, Brighton.


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  • August 19, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Right, so this is chapter ‘Advertising feature for the Kent Messenger group’, yes?

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