When will Newspaper owners finally realise that they are no longer in the newspaper business?

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The day after I left school, in June of the long hot summer of 1976, I started work on my local newspaper, The Lowestoft Journal, part of the Eastern Counties Newspapers Group, headquartered in the fine city of Norwich.

 

ECN would later embrace EMAP Publications and become Archant plc, one of the largest regional newspaper companies in the UK.

 

Last week, in a shareholder communication letter, I received the depressing news that Archant was filing for administration, and that my shares are now worthless.

 

The company blames Covid-19, together with a gaping hole in the company’s pension fund, as the combined causes for Archant’s downfall, yet many industry observers, myself included, see these as little more than weak excuses for the abject failings of the company’s leadership

 

Of course Archant is not alone, and in recent times we have witnessed the demise of almost every big name in the UK regional newspaper sector, including Johnston Press, Newsquest and Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror), all of them ditching regional titles and closing local offices, with the consequent impacts on employees and the communities they serve.

 

Newspaper owners are the guardians of some of our longest established and most warmly cherished local brands. The [insert name of town] Mercury, Journal, Argus, Reporter, Times, Post, News, Echo, Review, Tribune, Herald, Observer, Gazette has been a piece of the local vernacular for countless decades. Most of us had our births announced in them, possibly our wedding(s), and almost certainly, in days gone by, our deaths would also have been recorded by them. 

 

A local newspaper is so much more than a conduit for local news. As well as its duty to inform, educate and entertain, the local rag also serves as a campaigning vehicle for local issues, and a galvanising force for thousands of charitable causes.

 

Perhaps above all else, the local newspaper is a marketplace, enabling local businesses, shops, services and trades to promote themselves to a constant, captive and mostly loyal community audience. It is this point perhaps more than any other that needs to be challenged when Archant Chairman Simon Bax cites digital disruption as the underlying cause for the downfall of the industry. My retort to Mr Bax is that he doesn’t have the first idea of what type of business he presides over. Personally I see his weak excuses as little more than a feeble diguise for weak and myopic leadership.

 

Revenue generated from local business advertising constitutes one of the greatest sources of income for the newspaper industry. In today’s digital economy, more local businesses than ever are spending money on advertising and marketing – in considerably greater volumes than those who previously bought local print advertising in the pre-Internet days. The emergence of a whole new cottage industry of local website designers, search and social marketing shops, is testimony to the fact that local businesses today require considerably more support with their marketing than ever. 

 

Sure, we have seen the monumental growth of Google and Facebook, making them the two largest advertising companies on the planet. But it is the new breed of local middle-men that has become the main conduit to the Search and Social giants. The ad spend is staying local, proving conclusively that local newspapers have utterly failed in their duty to protect and serve their local communities.

 

The greatest blind spot has been newspaper owners who viewed themselves as aggregators and distributors of news, controlling the means by which news is gathered, and in turn the channels through which it is distributed. In a ground-breaking, foresightful and pinpoint-accurate lecture delivered back in 2010, former Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger, talked about the splintering of the fourth estate, and how digital media - specifically Twitter - would irreversibly change the face of news gathering and delivery. 

 

Rusbridger’s speech was delivered on 19 November 2010, in Sydney Australia, at that year’s Andrew Olle lecture. I was fortunate enough to be working in Australia at the time, and I witnessed the speech live on ABC. Rusbridger talked in a resigned yet pragmatic tone about the impacts of digital disruption, specifically with regards to news gathering and distribution, using the recent launch and rapid rise of Twitter as a metaphor for the profound changes we have witnessed in the way that information is created and spread in the Internet era.

 

It was around the time of that lecture that Archant started closing down its local offices, a suicidal decision that has perhaps more than any other led to the alienation of thousands, possibly millions, of local consumers and small businesses.

 

The logo that resides on the masthead of scores of local newspaper brands is a valued and treasured part of the community that it serves. The local newspaper is an integral piece of the local community fabric - it does not and should not reside on an out-of-town industrial estate, or in a corporate office hundreds of miles away from the people it serves. A few successful publishers have found ways to extract new and additional value from those local offices. They can be used as hubs for local Twitter users and correspondents to engage with editorial teams, and above all, they can be an access point for local advertisers. In addition they can sell coffee and cakes (and greetings cards for all those people posting BMD* notices), as well as finding other ways to engage and interact with the local audience. The spaces can also be shared or co-managed with other local Hight Street brands, for the sake of saving on rates and rent. *Births, Marriages, Deaths.

 

So what is the end game for local news providers, and the warmly-held titles they own? Some may argue that it is too late, or too complex. In all truth, local consumers still want to access local news stories, to check the latest arrivals and departures, the local courts, what’s on, the local sports teams, local charitable causes, together with local jobs, houses for sale, and miscellaneous sales etc.

 

The skill is to weave all this content into a delivery mechanic that captures it all - in multiple formats, but above all, ones that can serve contextually-relevant local business advertising alongside the local news and information that consumers are searching for. Facebook tends to do this better than most, and it is perhaps little surprise that more small businesses choose to advertise on Facebook these days, than on any other media, including Google.

 

It would be a big ask to expect Facebook to start acquiring ailing regional newspaper companies around the world. As much as that might be nice for the injection of fresh capital and digital expertise that would accompany it, perhaps the smarter play might be for individual newspaper owners to strike local alliances with Facebook that would serve the dual benefit of generating a positive reappraisal of the local newspaper brand, while simultaneously creating a prominent and easy-to-access online destination for local consumers and businesses to interact.

 

For this to happen will first require the guardians of our cherished local newspaper titles to think – and act – differently, to bring fresh-thinking, smart new digital talent into their organisations, particularly people who understand content and how it can be creatively served to meet the modern-day interactions between consumers and businesses.

 

For some newspaper owners this will be akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, yet for others it might just be a lifeline to a sustainable new future. 

 

My letter from Archant closes with the optimistic prediction that the recent decisions taken by the company will enable it to progress with a new owner, respectful of heritage and ambitious for the future. My sincere wish is that Archant’s new owners heed the lessons of the past two decades, while taking the brave and necessary action to jettison the “old world” leadership and thinking that created the present sorry state of affairs.


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