With the future direction of regional journalism too often dragging along like a stubborn Brexit anchor, maybe it’s time to share some positive insights picked up on my travels in recent days.
One of the most senior executives at Reach plc – yes, it’s 2019, and time for this blogger to let go of Trinity Mirror terminology – has told me that digital advertising revenues at a number of its regional businesses are now regularly hitting 40% of the total compared to print.
Hold on a minute while I put my tin hat on… and yes, I know, ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ were my initial thoughts as well, but let me explain why I believe this claim.
The way I asked about revenue ratios was very clear: “For years now, many publishers have been saying that up to 20pc of revenues are digital and 80pc print, and that the digital share is growing. What’s it reached?”
The answer from the Reach executive – and sorry, but I agreed anonymity – was immediate and confident: “Some regions are seeing digital revenue making up to 35% to 40% of the total ad revenue.”
There were caveats: the ‘deep throat’ was keen to make sure I understood this was “not all [parts of the business] by any means,” and underlined that “circulation revenue is excluded from these figures”.
But there was more to push the 60:40 ratio claim: “Drilling down on a city level, digital has on occasion been very close to 50%, and in a certain city it has exceeded that a couple of times in the past year.”
An emerging 60:40 ratio feels believable, and yet more sticks and stones will still be flying over from doubters, and I don’t blame them; but hear me out.
My well-placed contact explained the ratio was now far easier to track because of Reach’s roll-out of ‘Live’ operations where it’s deliberately split digital and print staffing structures.
This, apparently, has allowed it to have a purer financial report on what’s spent online and in print, and therefore the revenues from the advertising aimed at each sector are easier to track.
It’s still not completely accurate, surely, as how do you split what’s widely known as piggy-back advertising from customers who book print but are ‘given’ online as a free extra?
However, in a separate conversation, another senior insider – this time at Newsquest – told me that such piggy-backing is now working both ways, with some advertisers booking online and ‘given’ print as an extra. Touché: not perfect, but double-sided.
Hanging around the edges of a recent regional conference, another fascinating statistic emerged from well-placed sources at Reach: the scale of digital revenues are apparently becoming more reliable, and somewhere in the region of £5,000 is now extracted from the market for every one million page views.
This figure was harder to pin down: one executive said: “It’ll be broadly in the region of £5,000”, while my main contact argued: “That indicative £5,000 is a minimum before we’ve even started playing around with how advertising works online.”
What does that mean? I was told: “The point is that newsrooms are starting to put a hard-edged value on what they achieve.
“In other words, if someone in the commercial department wants an ad feature written that will divert editorial effort away from achieving page views, we can assess whether it is actually worth the money.
“Really smart, bespoke digital campaigns that combine programmatic, content marketing and contextual display command way higher yields than network programmatic alone.
“So that indicative £5,000 is a minimum. It’s a bellwether figure that we know is almost definitely there before we even start playing that audience for customers in terms of sponsorships and bespoke advertising.”
Regional websites, of course, are often criticised for believing in and following the page views mantra to the point of obsession.
But is that any different from what we used to do decades ago when chasing newspaper sales – knowing that certain levels of purchase brought in definite cash from cover price and advertising prices we could charge?
And in terms of ‘playing with audiences’, isn’t that what newspapers did 30 years ago in terms of ‘special editions’ with commercial wraps (aka bulks) and whole pages in the main editions that carried ‘special features in association with’ taglines?
The reason this sort of online revenue statistic is working for Reach, my contact explained, is because if X-many journalists on a specific online title can be shown to result in Y-number of page views, it makes the investment in employment more sustainable for the penny-pinchers upstairs.
“This is why it made such sense to split digital and print staffing,” I was told, “because if we can show how a set number of staff is producing an approximate amount of income, the company has confidence in retaining that staffing, and perhaps on investing more for higher returns.”
None of the above helps those of us concerned at the double-figure declines in print sales, the consequent loss of historic titles and the ends of so many hundreds of traditional careers.
After all, while 40pc digital revenues would be a marked achievement – 100pc up on the share of what it was said to be years ago – it’s only a larger slice of what’s an undeniably smaller pie as overall revenues continue to tumble.
But for one Reach executive, it’s the beginning of a future strategy, as “for too long bosses didn’t know where they were going or how they could get there”, whereas at least now they have a structured plan.
And over at JPIMedia (formerly Johnston Press) another source told me: “It means that while a large chunk of remaining journalists must focus on achieving increasing millions of page views to continue totting up the resulting revenues, good editors are making sure quality journalism survives as well.
“The industry always had most its staff churning out overnight leads, flights of nibs, picture captions and charity cheque presentations, plus all the other efforts poured into puzzles, stars and TV listings.
“Without those arguably more mundane bits of content, there was no paper to sell, but it didn’t stop the star reporters, the specialists or those on the off-diary rota bringing in the exclusive splashes we all got excited about.”
The argument from all regional publishers is that this is exactly what a well-structured newsroom with inspirational leaders is still doing today.
Yes, most modern-day hacks have to be focused on attracting page views, but making that succeed means a proportion of staff can then be involved in quality journalism: investigations, courts and council reporting and campaigns.
Mix that up with the ongoing integration of BBC-funded local democracy reporters, plus the addition of community editorial resource forthcoming from the NCTJ-led Facebook investments, and perhaps there’s a future for regional journalism after all.
Before you cheer too loudly, however, remember it’s a largely online future, without cover prices, and it’s therefore dependent on advertising, and more sensitive to the economy. Which brings us back to Brexit…