Summary:

Many newspaper publishers are now hastening the reform of their local titles challenged by digital consumption migration, the drying up of classified ads and rising print costs, a confluence of strategies suggests.

Stack Of Newspapers On Table
photo: Corbis / Dirk Rees

Some UK newspaper publishers are now hastening the reform of their local titles challenged by digital consumption migration, the drying up of classified ads and rising print costs, a confluence of strategies suggests.

  • Johnston Press is turning five of its daily papers in to redesigned, “bumper” weekly editions with about 150 pages each, while relaunching all 170 of its titles with new seven-day web publishing and iPad editions for the largest. (Announcement).
  • INM is axing its daily The Belfast Telegraph’s evening edition to focus on its single daily edition. (Via Journalism.co.uk).
  • Northcliffe’s Bristol Evening Post is also dropping the “Evening” and its Saturday edition, whilst turning its Venue entertainment magazine digital-only, with 20 possible redundancies. (Via Press Gazette).

It all amounts to less cost-intensive print and, with any luck, the emergence of a digital strategy worth its name.

Local newspapers have been somewhat asleep at the wheel during several years of change and disintermediation, bringing to market online versions of brands that repurposed their core content rather than reimagined their core purpose.

During that time, local papers’ core consumer demographic has, quite literally, been dying off while younger consumers – no less information-hungry – have disconnected from parochial local publishers and connected with each other using new tools.

Now this perfect storm is reaching its fiercest. Some citizens still have a strong desire for local news and information, according to a new Pew Research Centre survey – but the economic foundation of the local newspapers of yesteryear is eroding.

Northcliffe, which last year closed 12 titles and divested another eight, already changed four dailies to weeklies, and found average issue circulation up 30 percent. It wants to grow digital from seven percent of its business to 19 percent by 2015/16, with print dipping from 82 percent to 49 percent.

At Johnston, new CEO Ashley Highfield – ex of Microsoft and the BBC – has unveiled the bullet points of an upcoming April 25 strategy to move the firm, perhaps belatedly, to a “platform-neutral” publishing approach with a web overhaul coming in July.

“We will extend our audience by  increasing our online content and making it easier to access in the most relevant ways as technologies continue to evolve,” Highfield says. Print price rises and the conversion of more of Johnston’s 19 dailies to weeklies are also on the agenda.

But Highfield also wants to aggregate related content from across Johnston’s large local network, in areas like soccer, small business or gardening, in to national UK niche brands.

“Websites like Mumsnet have exploited this brilliantly and we can too,” Highfield tells Guardian.co.uk. “So our plan is to create several of these new businesses and then promote them on a national basis.”

This is a smart idea. Nowadays, few younger-generation consumers engage with their locality purely within the isolated confines of their local newspaper experience. But they frequently do engage locally – national brands like Rightmove, Gumtree, Meetup, TheyWorkForYou and more all allow us to indulge in the same kind of functions local papers once had all to themselves.

Can any of the publishers make a transition finally? CNN International digital VP and GM Peter Bale says: “Definitely a burning platform. Good luck.”

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