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Tor Clark: Can local newspapers survive in the digital age?

When the first edition of What Do We Mean By Local? was published in 2011, the local newspaper industry was already in trouble.

In this latest extract from the second edition, editor-turned-journalism lecturer Tor Clark, left, argues that its future is, if anything, more uncertain now.


The obituaries of the UK regional press continue to be written.  The latest ABC  figures continue to show major circulation decline for our largest regional publications. Formerly thriving daily newspapers have been converted to weeklies, weeklies and frees closed. Newspapers’ advertising revenues have declined, editorial staffs have shrunk and offices closed.

Academics and leading journalists have chronicled the decline of the regional press while the Newspaper Society  and companies which own most of the UK regional press continue to assure advertisers and the City it is still a buoyant and significant medium. So what is the position? What are the reasons for the decline, what effect have recent developments had and what hope is there for vibrant local journalism in the UK in the future?

The Golden Age of the Regional Press

All UK journalism was originally local. Three hundred years ago small printers in small towns started producing newsletters containing all manner of information, most of the news not local at all.  Over the centuries this was organised into what we now recognise as newspapers. The purpose of many was often to promote their owners’ political or religious views, or to sell the products of local entrepreneurs. These papers were often owned by local worthy and monied families and remained so well into the twentieth century.  Not all survived, but those which did became well established. Without competition, communities were served by regional morning, evening and weekly papers. Broadsheet morning newspapers such as the Yorkshire Post, Northern Echo or Birmingham Post had prestigious reputations. Weekly paid-for papers serving defined areas were simply the Bible for local people, their news parochial, their staff well known and part of the community. The paper was ‘one of the family’.

This was the golden era of the evening paper. Much of its circulation was locked-in by home delivery and in towns and cities street vendors would sell the paper to workers on their way home from their factories and offices. The papers would be read on the bus, tram or train home then passed around the family. The biggest papers sold in their hundreds of thousands.

This comfortable normality lasted for much of the twentieth century, despite changes in ownership. Even until the 1970s many titles were still in family ownership. But from this point, the various companies began to form into the Big Four  we know today, with family firms taken over by larger groups, particularly Johnston Press,  Trinity Mirror and Newsquest.

Going out with a Bang

Before the recession of the early 1990s, all was relatively well in the regional press. Its ownership was becoming concentrated, but was still diverse. Circulation was high. It was well-staffed and lacked competition, with only local radio and regional TV scratching the surface of its unique selling point, the plentiful supply of local news to local people. Local commerce made good use of its platform to supply a growing consumer demand. But, with hindsight, the early 1990s recession was the beginning of the end of the good times. Circulation fell and advertising revenue declined. Newspapers cut staff and traditional practices to save money. When the UK came out of recession cuts made in the early 1990s were not reversed. Corporate managements recognised their papers had survived on smaller staffs and budgets in tough times and reasoned they could continue as times got better. And times got much better.

In the past, typically under local family management, newspapers were there to serve the community. Some years they made a good profit, in lean years they might not. It didn’t matter. Over time the enterprise sustained itself. By the early 1990s the Emap mission statement recorded it wished to be a media company with profit margins of 20 per cent. Emap owned high-margin low-staff businesses such as magazines, radio stations and exhibitions. Its small papers, with their high headcounts, made 5 to 15 per cent, so 20 per cent was an ambitious target.  But maximising gains from staff cuts, improving technology to further reduce manpower and then riding the wave of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century boom, for a short period of perhaps ten years the UK regional press made money like never before. The mission of 20 per cent margins was being easily surpassed by the late 1990s, particularly by the fourth biggest regional publisher of that time Johnston Press, which doubled in size in 1996 with the purchase of Emap’s newspapers.

Johnston companies trimmed costs to the bone, maximised ‘business synergies’ and pushed local advertising rates as high as they would go, netting declared margins of 35 per cent or more. Management of the other big players, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Northcliffe, saw these margins and demanded them of their own executives. For many running regional papers it became ‘the curse of Johnston’s margins’.  Here were big regional companies operating super-slim and efficient businesses, squeezing as much cash out of their local markets in a boom with little to no competition. Between 1995 and 2005 three of the four biggest businesses almost completely changed hands, creating even more savings in the newly-merged conglomerates.

The five big advertising categories – homes, cars, jobs, classified and display – prospered. But at the height of the boom, with its corresponding skills shortage, the category which grew most was situations vacant jobs advertising. What had once been a few pages at the back of the paper often became a huge regional supplement. The night of the jobs pull-out in evening papers was the biggest seller of the week, often with thousands of extra sales to people who wanted to change jobs to cash in on the good times. In sits vac advertising many market-leading papers had a monopoly and could charge top prices for employment advertising. The UK regional press enjoyed a huge boom, fuelled largely by the enormous margins generated by this advertising. A colour page, which might cost a local estate agent a few hundred pounds, could be sold in smaller chunks to firms needing to fill jobs locally for several thousands of pounds. It was a gold mine and several regional press companies became the darlings of the stock market as their shares rose and rose on the back of ever-increasing profits.

Changing Times

But it wouldn’t last. Two developments would end the golden days for ever – changing social trends and the arrival of the internet. Newspaper companies knew society was changing. Their research showed as more people went to work they had less leisure time, less time to read a paper six nights a week. As the media became more sophisticated, so people had other sources of news. As people migrated away from their home areas looking for better jobs so their connections to the new area in which they lived broke down, and with it their desire for strictly local news.

Newspapers recognised these issues in the 1990s and came up with editorial strategies to keep readers interested, specifically, despite reduced staffing, increasing local news, which surveys always said was readers’ top priority. But by this time the balance sheet was king and the big companies needed ever-increasing profits to fund their acquisitions and meet City expectations. From the boardroom’s perspective, though falling circulation was worrying, it was offset by increasing advertising revenue, often from employment advertising, which kept profitability healthy.

Soon web-based advertising took huge, profitable chunks of regional advertising away, never to return. Jobs ads were the biggest casualty. Specialist websites replaced generalist newspaper pages. In the NHS, which had paid thousands of pounds to the local and trade press every week to advertise its many vacancies, once its managers realised they could advertise those jobs on their own websites for nothing, its business left for good. Car sales went to specialist publications and websites, estate agents set up their own websites which offered tours of properties rather than just a picture, and the old faithful miscellaneous sales disappeared to specialist websites such as e-Bay.

Many newspaper executives did not realise the scale of the impact the internet would have on their advertising nor did they seek a compelling local alternative until it was too late. The arrival of the internet also created a generation used to reading news on a screen rather than on paper. This was one, admittedly major, problem, but another largely ignored but equally significant issue was the big owners’ failure to realistically reduce their profit ambitions despite the obvious fact the market had seismically changed. Even though huge swathes of fantastically profitable advertising had deserted newspapers, publishers still wanted unrealistically large profit margins.

The decade between 1995 and 2005 was regional newspaper advertising’s golden era, but it was a bubble. After the advertising left, the economics of the regional press went back to normal, indeed below normal if the desertion of readers to the Internet is taken into account. But many boards needed big profits to pay back the loans they had taken in the boom years to buy more papers. To meet this ambition they were compelled to make cuts and synergies to maintain profit expectations. It was a vicious but unsustainable spiral.

Faced with their desire to maintain large margins many newspapers closed offices, reduced the numbers of journalists, by non-replacement and redundancy, centralised whole operations, such as sub-editing, moved printing to huge regional plants, closing local print works, and finally reduced the frequency or even closed their papers. Newspapers were still the best news source in town, but with fewer journalists to fill more pages, they were often forced to fall back on dull, easily-sourced news. Many papers stopped routinely covering courts and councils, reporters stopped leaving their offices, stopped finding out what people were talking about in the pubs and clubs of their communities and as a result many papers ceased to be compelling. The reporters still working in the regions were often paid so little they only used the local press as a two-year stepping stone to more lucrative careers in better paid areas of journalism, or often the dark arts – and much better pay – of public relations.

Faced with a readership declining because of their looser ties with the area in which they lived and a younger generation never likely to convert to local newspaper readers, it was precisely the wrong time to cut staff to such a point that many ceased to have time to cover their local areas in sufficient depth. Some journalists can be blamed for an unwillingness to leave their desks and go out to meet real people in the normal course of their work, but most remained dedicated and conscientious, just trying to fill their papers with less and less help. Email traffic and clever PR people (often former journalists themselves) filled this gap with easy copy, the phenomenon which became known as ‘churnalism’.

Readers and advertisers deserted the regional press for social and technological reasons at just the time owners were asking their pages to be filled by fewer journalists often with an impact on the quality of content. This decline may have happened anyway, but many frustrated journalists involved believe they could have done more to arrest the decline had they had sufficient resources to generate the compelling content necessary to engage and retain readers. Interestingly the big evening papers have lost many more readers, faster than their local weekly paid-for cousins. For example, the Leicester Mercury sold around 110,000 papers every night in 1990, but twenty one years later that total had halved. The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph still sold 40,000 papers a night at the same time, and it too halved over the same period. But sitting midway between them and covering some of the same areas, the weekly Harborough and Lutterworth Mail sold around 10,000 papers a week in 1996, and still around that number fifteen years later, enjoying a good increase in the intervening period. The picture of well-established weekly papers managing to hold-up circulation better than their daily counterparts even in today’s difficult climate offers some hope for the future.

New Initiatives

2012 and 2013 saw several notable developments. Firstly, with a few exceptions, across the board regional newspaper circulations have continued to decline. Secondly, more regional daily newspapers have been converted to weeklies. The Bath Chronicle started the trend in 2007, it continued with Northcliffe’s Lincolnshire Echo, Scunthorpe Telegraph, Torquay Herald Express and Exeter Express and Echo in 2011 and Johnston Press got in on the act in May 2012, when the Northamptonshire Telegraph, Peterborough Telegraph, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Scarborough News and Halifax Courier all dropped five daily editions overnight. Whilst this move sliced considerable costs from the JP bottom line, it has not necessarily been popular with staff or readers and after initial success, sales have fallen away to a point where some of them are selling as many in a week as they used to in a single night only a few years ago. The daily-to-weekly phenomenon has reduced the press presence in local markets and cut journalists’ jobs. Whilst digital consumption is undoubtedly rising (see below), the loss of so much newsprint feels to many like the management of decline.

Thirdly, the last ‘big four’ regional group not to have been ‘consolidated’, Northcliffe, announced in November 2012 its effective merger with the smaller Illiffe group to form a big new major regional publisher, Local World. This created a bigger group for both former companies to operate in and allowed the new player to divest itself of some expensive baggage, such as printing presses. It also focused the ownership of larger part of the new firm, Northcliffe, on the regional rather than national press. There was much discussion at the time about the possibilities Local World offered and it certainly looked better for Northclife that its local news businesses were finally owned by a firm which did not want to sell it, as the Daily Mail group had been trying to do unsuccessfully since 2006. The jury remains out on Local World, though its digital strategy does offer interesting possibilities.

Finally, and more hopefully, despite the continual decline of newspaper circulations, there has been good news on digital readership, though whether the news is good enough to sustain the sector in the long run remains up for discussion. Regional publishers would always argue back against the evidence of circulation decline, that lost hard copy readers are more than offset by new digital readership and the latest figures support their claims. The only problem, as everyone knows, is print readers mostly pay for it and digital browsers don’t. This remains the crucial problem.

Back to the Future?

So what does the future hold for the regional press after what has been a decade of cuts and decline? The internet hasn’t been all bad for local news as we have seen from the latest digital readership figures. Local newspapers are still usually the first port of call for local news online. They have not lost their dominance of local news largely because they mostly still have the best news-gathering networks and the trusted brand on which to publish it. Their brands may prove their saviour – if they can raise income from them.

The lack of a digital cover price, plus the on-going problem of desertion of advertising spend means newspapers are still struggling to come up with a good model to monetise their content online. In an effort to try a subscription rather than advertising model, pay walls were attempted, most notably by Johnston Press, but these were limited and largely unsuccessful experiments which did not provide any long-term answers. Pay walls would be a solution if they worked, but even marketed well their value is questionable in the forms attempted so far.

One USP local newspapers still have is their archived local content – economic business and advertising data as well as local news stories – and it may be this archive material has a greater long-term subscription model value than has previously been realised.  But in the short-term all regional publishers are still looking for a decent model to make their day-to-day online presence pay.

Another scenario if large publications did decline or fold would be that smaller hyperlocal websites might spring up offering local news from a low cost base. This would, ironically, return local news-gathering to its origins. This is beginning to happen in some areas, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so, and it remains to be seen how realistic a model this will prove to be. Of course, the game is far from over for the local press. Talented and committed journalists are still labouring away on their beloved papers and if big publishers reduced their desire for huge profit margins and returned to the days of smaller, but sustainable profits, many papers, especially the smallest, are eminently viable. Other sectors have weaned themselves off unsustainable profit margins and adapted well to this new era – and it might not be too late for the regional press to do the same.

If the big owners cannot do that because of their own financial positions and heavy gearing, if they sold these papers back to their communities, without the expectation for continuing unrealistic margins, there could be a long-term future for local media, as multi-platform providers of news and advertising. What is certain is that local people still have an appetite for local news, the more compelling the better. Whether that can be supplied to them in future, who will supply it and who will pay for it remain the big questions.

Note on the author

Tor Clark is Principal Lecturer in Journalism, BA Journalism programme leader and a Teacher Fellow at De Montfort University in Leicester. His interests include political journalism, UK regional media, the history of journalism, learning and teaching. He was a previously a journalist in the regional press on free, daily and weekly newspapers, two of which he edited. He is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Leicester on political and journalistic issues and writes for Total Politics. His chapter in John Mair’s After Leveson (2012) looked at the impact of the report on the regional press.

  • WHAT DO WE MEAN BY LOCAL? THE RISE, FALL AND RISE AGAIN OF LOCAL JOURNALISM. EDITED BY JOHN MAIR,RICHARD LANCE KEEBLE WITH NEIL FOWLER.  PUBLISHED BY ABRAMIS BURY ST EDMUNDS SEPTEMBER IST 2013 ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0 PRICE £19.95 WITH A SPECIAL OFFER TO YOUR READERS OF £15.00 from richard@arimapublishing.co.uk

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  • August 20, 2013 at 9:56 am
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    Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. Never have so many words been used to say so little.
    Our weekly is doing quite well thanks because we bring local news – not online gossip – to local people.
    The market is contracting true, but in terminal decline? I think not.
    We must adapt, as has always been the case, but keep clear heads before running headlong into the type of confused offering advocated by – and the name says it all – Local World.

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