The former chairman of Johnston Press has said that local print publishers will need to adopt an online subscription model to survive.
In the second of a series of extracts from a new book on the future of print, Roger Parry says that offering ‘free’ online content should be seen only as a ‘pathway’ to creating paid subscribers.
Roger, a former BBC and ITV journalist, chaired the regional publisher’s board between 2001 and 2009 and is now chairman of the polling organisation YouGov.
He says only a very few daily newspapers will survive and that most local print publications will be “artefacts” designed to enhance an overall multimedia offering.
Says Roger: “Local news, features and advertising still matter but the way people will get them has changed. The role of print in delivering them has to be modified.
“So is there a future. Yes. And in fact it is relatively easy to describe the business model most likely to work. But, for a traditional newspaper company it is very hard to get there from here.
“The future of local media is a subscription-based relationship offering a multimedia solution. Work out what people will pay for, in terms of both content and format, and offer it to them.
“Easy to say. Hard to do. But what is clear is the daily publication, produced on newsprint and distributed by retail outlets is almost certainly not the answer.
“Your content is local information but let your audience decide how they access it. The printed weekly, the website, Facebook, the smartphone.
“Your readers will use you the way they want to. Just make sure any material offered free is on a pathway to creating a loyal subscriber.
‘Free’ is a sample offer, it cannot be the whole service. Despite what some at The Guardian once thought, there is simply not enough advertising, certainly on a local basis, to pay for a quality product.
“Local media has to be multi-media to deliver what the audience wants, and on subscription to pay the bills.”
In his chapter, entitled ‘Local papers – after the fall,’ Roger also called for a more wholesale move towards user-generated content.
“Local news is expensive to collect. It is far better if you can get enthusiastic and skilled local people to do it for nothing. And they will,” he wrote.
“Professional journalists still have a vital role to play in commissioning and curating this material, and in taking the lead on investigations and campaigns.
“But a small group of skilled and experienced ‘hacks’ working across a group of papers in a region can orchestrate a huge amount of quality output.”
Roger concludes that the local paper of the future will “look far more like a magazine” and wil be weekly except in “a very few major cities.”
“News will come from a small team of professional journalists organised on a regional basis serving a dozen or more titles with a network of largely unpaid stringers and correspondents at a local and micro-local level,” he wrote.
“The printed weekly will be in a way an artefact, an object to have around the house which affirms membership of, and interest in, a local community. The way that Vogue or Country Life enhance a dentist’s waiting room, or the FT and Wall Street Journal adorn an investment bank.
“Local print will not vanish but it will find a radically new role as part of a multi-media offering.”