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Online property advertising ‘sealed fate’ of local press, says former editor

Keith PerchA former regional daily editor has highlighted the local press industry’s failure to capture the online property advertising market as the key factor in its revenue decline.

Keith Perch, left, edited three daily titles during his career and his now head of journalism at Derby University.

In a chapter for ‘Last Words?’ a book about the future of journalism, Keith charts the revenue decline of regional newspapers since the advent of the internet and the consequent fall in staff numbers.

The book, parts of which were serialised on HoldtheFrontPage before Christmas, is due to be launched this evening at London’s Groucho Club.

Keith, who edited the South Wales Echo, Derby Telegraph and Leicester Mercury, said the fate of newspaper revenues were sealed by the failure of traditional newspaper executives to “understand the nature of the threat or the opportunity of online classifieds.”

“Take property advertising, for example. Newspapers already had a good relationship with thousands of estate agents throughout the country and already gathered details and a photograph of hundreds of thousands of properties from them for advertising every week. Moving this online and making it searchable would keep them ahead,” he wrote.

“But the newspapers did not understand either the internet or the business of estate agents. In newspapers, space was at a premium. As a result, advertisements for houses tended to include just one photograph and very limited details of the property.

“The estate agents were quick to realise the internet offered them the chance to put full details, and lots of photographs of every house, online, giving them rich data which was searchable at any time. They had access to the data via their members and could attract a direct audience without the need for newspapers as intermediaries.”

He added: “Classified advertising simply works better online. It is searchable and always available. There are few space restrictions, meaning multiple photographs and lots of detail.

“The internet has severed the link between advertising and news. The fundamental change brought about by the internet is one of unbundling: somebody looking for a house to buy online will not go to a news site, they go directly to a property website.”

In his piece, Keith claimed that revenues at his former paper, the Mercury, had fallen from £59m in 1996 to £16m in 2011, the last year in which it published separate accounts.

Over the same period, the number of staff employed at the paper fell from 581 to 107, with Keith highlighting district news coverage with the move to single overnight editions as a particular casualty of the fall in numbers.

Wrote Keith:  “Geographic district editions have all but disappeared throughout the UK. As newspapers reduced to a single edition, news from outlying areas was perceived as not interesting enough to be carried in the newspaper where most readers were in the core city area.

“As a result, the news from district areas – and the people who provided it – lost value.”

He concludes:  “It is clear the catastrophic reduction in the key revenue categories for regional papers has forced them to cut staff numbers by far more than has previously been reported.

“This, combined with other cost savings, particularly the closure of district editions, has led to hundreds of towns up and down the UK losing their daily newspaper coverage.”

* Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? is edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait and is published by Abramis Academic Publishing.

17 comments

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  • January 23, 2017 at 12:14 pm
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    I disagree….
    We were getting peanuts for a page of property advertising – it was a lost leader.
    Readership was lost because we became ‘History Papers’ and not newspapers because the internet offered instant, and real, news.
    The real revenue and readership killer was Sits Vac.
    I remember predicting that the internet would decimate it, we were charging a small fortune for a 5 X 2 Sits Vac in a shrinking market and the internet Jobs Market startups were offering it for pennies!

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  • January 23, 2017 at 12:32 pm
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    With regards to property,maybe this is the case in specific areas however in the east,EDP/Archant have tried with their online property24 site but as its not comprehensive enough and, in my personal experience,not user friendly, its not seen as anywhere near as good as the other better known sites.
    As property is key its loss would cause a huge and irrecoverable hole to appear in the already cracked revenue platforms, as a result they will do anything they can to keep hold of it,this is why their daily,weekly and magazine offerings are full of fawning top ten listicles along the lines of “Norwichs top ten most eligible estate agents,or ” city estate agents do the James Bond look” (give me strength) anything to retain the millions of pounds property brings in irrespective of how the overall papers look ( property heavy) or the experience for the end user,and quite why the local agents continue to run pages of dull as adverts showing just one,often poor ,picture of a property on newsprint which never flatters,goodness only knows

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  • January 23, 2017 at 12:56 pm
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    I disagree,Sits vac, public notices and births and deaths have all collapsed due to the extortionate rates charged for many years when the publishers had the monopoly or when the advertisers had limited choice, now the restrictions have eased as to where govt bodies and councils can advertise majority have voted with their feet and gone elsewhere.
    Had greed and an attitude of ” they HAVE to advertise in our papers” not been allowed to flourish, the bigger publishers may well have kept hold of some of the tens of thousands they’ve watched drain away.
    Short term greed brining long term pain

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  • January 23, 2017 at 1:59 pm
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    It was probably part of the decline, but not all of it.

    The challenge for papers then, and now is this. That a long time ago newspapers held a monopoly on publishing as a whole – once people and companies realised that they could produce online platforms that were not just on a par but substantially better (and with bigger reach with the help of Google) that was when newspapers were in trouble.

    It wasn’t just that papers lost interest in producing online platforms, they were outspent and the best developers went to the Facebooks, the Twitters, the Googles, the Right Moves and the You tubes companies that took risks that paid off. Newspapers weren’t prepared to take that risk or stray outside their comfort zones and that is why they lost out and are scrabbling to catch up now. (which they won’t if they continue to outsource web dev to India)

    As a result nowadays you’ve got the President of the USA publishing direct to Twitter, council leaders directly to Facebook and members of the public to spotted pages rather than their local paper – and I don’t understand why newspapers like the Telegraph are publishing opinion pieces at ‘premium’ – why would I pay extra to read someones opinion? They are ten a penny on the web – this is an example of the old fashioned thinking that will kill newspapers.

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  • January 23, 2017 at 2:04 pm
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    As Keith might recall from his time representing Northcliffe in the management of Fish4homes, Fish4jobs etc it wasn’t so much a failure “to understand the nature of the threat or the opportunity of online classifieds.” Rather it was the failure of the execution of a potentially great idea – band together first as AdHunter 7 then Fish4 and see off the competition.

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  • January 23, 2017 at 5:11 pm
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    Aside from advertising , I agree with his comments about decline in district coverage. Regional Papers have concentrated on main towns and cities and closed district offices. Weeklies might have gained from this but instead they sacked staff and closed offices. We can see the results.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 1:15 am
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  • January 24, 2017 at 10:22 am
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    I don’t disagree with most of the comments – the headline is slightly misleading. I did not say that it was the loss of property advertising that sealed the fate of local newspapers, I used property to illustrate what happened to the key classified revenues.

    I don’t doubt there are places where the figures differ slightly, but my overall point was to highlight just how much classified advertising has disappeared and the effect that has had on the content covered by local newspapers. For example, Johnston Press lost more than £217-million of classified advertising between 2007 and 2014. If fell from £296-million to £79-million.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 10:25 am
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    In my time with JP (25 years +), I think we had every opportunity to move print revenues online. The trouble was that most of the online offerings created for classified, property, motors and recruitment – and some were sound in principle – simply didn’t work. They were created and administered on a shoestring, with no real investment or commitment. We had our chance and we blew it.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 1:43 pm
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    As if.

    I’ll tell you who “sealed the fate” of the local press, mate.

    The bloody local press, that’s who.

    Or at least those who own and (mis) manage it.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 2:00 pm
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    Where did it all go wrong? Big subject. My observation is that you can get your kids to read the local paper but they wouldn’t dream of selling their old bike in it. It’s e-bay all the way.
    Local newspaper websites are generally useless. They try to cram in advertising and make the whole experience a nightmare.
    And in what other industry would you find people making the product worse in the hope that it would increase sales. Only the newspapers could come up with that idea.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 3:08 pm
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    Local papers are a throw-back to another time – like pubs, factory gates, corner shops, tobacconists, to have and to hold . . . it’s too late to rethink it. What we need is a powerful watchdog to witness and expose the wrongs in society. But who would pay for that?

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  • January 24, 2017 at 3:10 pm
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    neatly summed up bluesstringer. I have watched the chaos and dive in standards as people who knew what they were doing left in shoals or were eased out. A few diehards try to hold things together in the kindergarten.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 4:00 pm
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    incorrect
    It wasnt the classifieds so much,more the main pillars of the paper;property,bmds,s/vac,public notices
    all have been subjected to inflated rates and prices for years with the revenues giving a false impression to the chiefs and bean counters of how valued a medium local newspapers were for this type of advertising,
    Soon as other more relevant and effective competitors came into the market,and as soon as the hand cuffs were off with regards to where public notices and council notices were allowed to advertise the floor fell away from the local paper markets taking vast swathes of once taken for granted revenue with it.
    Had the pricing not been so high and had the advertsing bosses not taken this sector for granted i am sure much of it might have stayed,because they had been treated with contempt for so long as soon as they had the chance to withdraw their advertising,most did.
    This is the over riding reason why so many good local independent publishers are thriving,they put the end user first and charge sensible,fair rates based on the numbers they deliver,something the bigger regional groups havent done for year.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 5:03 pm
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    Norridge. You make a good point . one excellent ad rep I knew cursed all day long at the incompetence and contempt for customers her managers had . She got branded a trouble maker. She left the asylum to the lunatics, and its fall from grace has been sad. Yet over promoted ad managers were put in charge of many local papers.

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  • January 24, 2017 at 7:23 pm
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    Newspapers were there for news & entertainment, now the internet is giving on the spot news at a fraction of the cost…
    entertainment is the key, finding hooks for the readership to keep them coming back & because of that bring advertisers together to suit that demographic which is now being catered for…
    there is something about a tangible hard copy, it may mostly be ephemera, … could things take a step back like when Sir Arthur published Shirlock Holmes on a periodical basis as entertainment to draw people in to read the stories, funded by advertising revenue?
    I get 16k regular viewers online, thinking of this as a new avenue to bring people ‘back to print!’.

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  • January 25, 2017 at 11:55 am
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    Paperboy
    There are many such examples I’m sure we could all relate to the big groups losing top quality staff ( im talking advertising, commercial people here) because they were deemed to not be ‘ on the bus’ had the audacity to question decisions or were viewed as negative because they weren’t yes men/ women

    These people, certainly in the area where I work,are all making good livings outside of the industry and in many cases working for competitor publishers selling against their once employers, much to the chagrin of those who remain.
    Whilst a yes man culture prevails and is encouraged,and staff go along with whatever the next big thing is deemed to be, afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal , nothing will change and the real reason why so much has been lost in so short a period of time will continue .

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