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Review of 2023: Digital downturn leaves jobs at mercy of tech giants

In my review of the year 2022, I noted that the chill wind blowing through the wider economy had left many regional journalists approaching the New Year with a good deal less optimism than was the case 12 months previously.

Well, that turned out to be something an understatement. The chill wind turned into a hurricane which blew away hundreds of journalism jobs and posed fundamental questions about a digital strategy which had seemingly left the industry at the mercy of the tech giants.

For years, publishers such as Reach and to a lesser extent National World had sought to build huge online audiences against which they could sell advertising, for instance with the expansion of their ‘Live’ and ‘World’ brands into areas where they had previously lacked an established print base.

It may have looked like a perfectly sound business model – but once Meta and Google decided to downgrade news in their algorithms rather than be made to pay the content providers, the inexorable growth in digital audiences of recent years swiftly went into reverse.


Sussex Live – one of 13 websites to close on 30th November in the wake of cutbacks by publisher Reach plc

The upshot was relentless cost-cutting, with Reach announcing no fewer than three rounds of cutbacks – in January, March, and most alarmingly in November when the company announced it was looking to shed 450 jobs – including 320 in editorial.

The ‘Live’ network, which had once been envisaged as a UK-wide operation, began to be dismantled, with the closure on 30th November of 13 websites stretching across East Anglia, the Home Counties, Dorset and Staffordshire.

Inevitably the successive rounds of cuts led to an exodus of talent, with the list of regional editors leaving the group during the course of the year including Adam Moss (Leicester Mercury and Coventry Telegraph), Ian McNeal (Teesside Gazette), Jamie Macaskill (Hull Daily Mail), Julie Crouch (Burton Mail) and Marc Waddington (The Sentinel).

They were accompanied on the way out by several senior editorial executives including audience and content directors Alison Gow and Ed Walker, YouTube editor Tom Canning, and marketplace publisher and former Midlands editor-in-chief Marc Reeves.

Against this backdrop, the future of the industry would appear to lie more than ever with the need to monetise journalism, as opposed to digital advertising reach, with many regional titles now operating metered online paywalls alongside their paid-for print products.

And on a smaller scale, a number of niche and hyperlocal publications succesfully pioneered newsletter-first subscription models, with Manchester-based The Mill leading the way by launching new titles in Liverpool, Sheffield and most recently Birmingham.

But the looming presence of the free-to-air BBC in the local online news sector continues to make local news a difficult sell for independent publishers, whether big or small.

And the corporation’s plans to expand that provision with the launch of 43 new local websites led to fresh clashes with the commercial sector, with a group of editorial leaders describing it as a “neighbour from hell” notwithstanding its continued funding for the local democracy reporting scheme.

But 2023 did bring at least some light relief. The story we had the most fun with at HTFP was the strange tale of the Bournemouth Observer – a new online start-up boasting an ‘esteemed editor’ by the name of David Roberts.

Neither we nor any of our contacts in the Bournemouth area had ever heard of Mr Roberts, while his picture bore a startling resemblance to a generic image of an IT consultant on

Our suspicions were further aroused by the fact that he appeared to be leading a staff of no fewer than ten, including ‘middle-aged journalist’ and ‘acclaimed local voice’ Simon Foster.

After some ace probing by our reporter Dave Sharman, it emerged that the journalists’ oddly-worded profiles – and some of the stories – had been written by AI tools.

Ah yes, AI. At the start of the year it had seemed to loom like a Sword of Damocles over the journalism trade, with many of its exponents fearing it would soon render us all obsolete.

All the major publishers experimented with the technology, most notably Newsquest who set up a project led by Jody Doherty-Cove to integrate it into its newsrooms and hired the first ‘AI-powered’ reporter, Erin Gaskell.

But the world didn’t end and all publishers seemed to agree – for now, at least – that human intervention by qualified professionals remains critical to the use of AI in newsroom settings.

And that may be some comfort to journalists in a year in which they saw their jobs under threat as perhaps never before.

* HoldtheFrontPage remains the only news platform that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the regional press industry in all its ups and downs.

Here’s the story of how 2023 unfolded as revealed in our top 10 most viewed stories of the year – listed chronologically rather than in order of page views.

Publisher to axe 200 jobs due to ‘cost and inflationary pressures

The new year is barely two weeks old and the first of three major job cuts announcments from Reach plc – this one affecting up to 200 staff.

More than 400 journalists put at risk as publisher reveals fresh cuts

More jobs misery at Reach, this time with 426 jobs placed at risk with the goal of cutting 192 roles.

Regional sites to bear brunt of Reach cuts as fresh departures revealed

It emerges that most of the 192 redundancies will take place across Reach’s regional operations, including its Live network of websites and InYourArea hyperlocal platform.

Regional daily’s ‘digital pioneer’ dies suddenly aged 45

Our most viewed obit of the year concerned the death of Dan Kay, Liverpool Echo journalist and well-known campaigner on behalf of the families of Hillsborough disaster victims.

Reporter opens up on escape from ‘miserable world of clickbait’

Reporter Abi Whistance’s take on her move from National World to independent website the Liverpool Post.

Fake journalist profiles used to launch new local news title

Our investigation into the strange case of the Bournemouth Observer whose staff of ten ‘journalsts’ including ‘esteemed editor’ David Roberts turned out to be AI-generated fakes.

Online page view slump sparks redundancy scheme at publisher

Reach launches a voluntary redundancy scheme after a slump in online page views, but unfortunately this proves to be only the prelude to deeper cuts.

Regional journalists banned from filming Rishi Sunak… or using the toilet

A prime ministerial visit to the East Midlands results in four reporters being shut in a football club changing room, barred from taking pictures or even using the lavatory.

Reach announces loss of 450 jobs – including 320 from editorial

November saw the third and biggest job loss announcement from the publisher in the space of 11 months and our most-viewed story of 2023.

Revealed: the 13 ‘Live’ websites closing as part of Reach’s cutbacks

Within days of the job loss announcment, the dismantling of Reach’s much-vaunted Live network began with 13 website closures.