News and Audience – The future of readership

Technology is no longer the future it’s just a vessel for carrying news the same as paper has been for centuries. The future is people, both investment in journalism and education of our next generation of audience.

When I took my first steps into the Newspaper industry, print was still king, newspapers were still a thing of the present and although I wanted to help build the growing  digital footprint for newspapers there were a number of factors which held us back.

Having a website was more of a status symbol then than it was a necessity. In fact much of the regional press still had a very limited offering.

We’re many  years down the line now and yes just about every regional has a decent looking website which they’re attempting to monetise, but are the offerings out there really up to scratch? Is it even the offering that is the problem?

Prior to working in the newspaper industry, I had a background in groundbreaking websites and technology, some of it perhaps came too much too soon and was better than the technology available to handle it.

Sites and projects that were hailed internationally as ahead of their time thanks to the forward thinking of the people paying me at the time. – a site built for the T.J.Morris group which gave the user an online shopping experience where they could actually walk the isles whilst adding things to their shopping carts. It sounds pretty mainstream now but at the time I was the sole developer working on the web build and it was revolutionary as an ecommerce site. the world’s first multiplayer email based games. Allowed users to play games of kung fu and joust against each other, with an online community of tens of thousands including a few celebrities. The brainchild of Paul Gouge and Alex Rigby, Battlemail gave us the challenge of creating a web based platform where players could trade, equip and compete against each other long before the big boys were dealing with in game purchases etc. Had Battlemial had the technology back then to match the ideas it could have been a world beater. It got great attention and was featured on CNN and in most of the worlds digital columns.

Palletline UK – a site which allowed the palletline network to communicate with each other long before we had our smartphones and social media platforms. They could arrange pickups and timings online and it helped streamline their entire business model.

There have been dozens of other builds but these 3 stand out because I believe they helped progress the industry as a whole. They all had aspects that had not been done before, they all had people with drive and progression behind them and they all gave me a certain amount of satisfaction when we turned around and said “It’s working!” sometimes even to our own surprise!

A couple of years after joining the newspaper industry I wanted to see us do an “Industry first” too. I’d been taken on as a sole internet developer but we were , as a company, bright enough to see that building the next wave of sites for the business was certainly more than a one man job.

At that time I moved away from full time development and more into an internet coordinator role. Working with senior managers to develop what we wanted to be the next generation of newspaper websites.

We got a development company on board and with the help of some key people within the company began to build a set of websites that would give us a platform to build a secure digital future.

The websites were a huge success. We went from just another newspaper website to industry leaders.
We had other regional newspapers asking if they could come and meet with us and discuss how we’d gone about the build. We had websites in North America, Australia and the Uk talking about what we’d created as we’d initialised the first micro local advertising platform.
It was simple but effective. By merging our business directory with our editorial offerings we could look at the postcode of a story and make sure that a selection of the nearest businesses where displayed alongside, not only that but we could charge those businesses for it. We were the first to find a way to monetise news in a unique way.

Sounds simple doesn’t it, and in effect it was, but it hadn’t been done before.

Of course around this time, Newspaper sales began to fall dramatically.
Directors and editors at regional newspapers sat at boardroom tables and blamed the internet for breaking their model.

This was a new one to me!
I was so used to working with progressive people that I couldn’t get my head around how people could suddenly be so negative about the internet.

More and more people were getting their hands on mobile phones and tablet devices and all we were hearing was that those people were killing our industry.

We tried to make them see that it was in fact the very opposite. We shouldn’t see these people as carrying phones and tablets, we should latch on to the fact that these people could be carrying our papers!
We had an opportunity to push our news out to more people than ever before, this wasn’t a negative this was an opportunity….. An opportunity we missed!

Newspaper publishers started spending money on hiring corporate men in suits to tell them how to make money. “Put it behind a paywall!”, set up a “Subscription model!”, “make them watch a video before they can read anything.” “Tease them with the first paragraph and then make them pay for more!”

The times I’ve sat with my head in my hands whilst these types of solutions have been mentioned I dread to think.

With technology comes technologists!
People who see the benefits of technology, embrace it, excel at it and use it well.

For the first time a newspaper can have direct competition from a 14 year old sat in their bedroom writing about what’s going on in their school, street or village or the local football team.
Micro local sites covering towns and villages have sprouted up from everywhere in recent years.

Regional newspapers had a perfect opportunity to nip them in the bud early on.
They had the journalists, they had the infrastructure but instead head honchos said “Hold back that story until we’ve sold some papers!”

Regional newspapers have very few EXCLUSIVES so what are you holding back for?
Even when you think you have an exclusive, the truth is people talk and text and instant message. News travels further and faster than EVER before.
Every story we have as a regional is taken from another source, investigative journalism is dead in the regional market. So what are you waiting for? It’s proven that holding a story does not sell more papers. Why? because that’s just like saying your readers are too dim to go and find the story elsewhere. And guess what? They will!
Going back to my previous projects. What I guess I am getting at is that you need to be brave and be first to continue to move forward.

We can NO longer sit and call ourselves Newspaper Publishers! We are News publishers!
Where we publish it, whether in print, video, podcasts, offline or online doesn’t matter, what matters is being first.

Get a paragraph out there as it happens and add to it as the story unfolds.
Get indexed by the search engines first.
Get it shared on social media first.
We have the resources to beat anyone and OWN our marketplaces.

Newspaper sales are not going to stop falling for another 5 years. I know that’s terrifying, I know it means that the industry will lose a lot more good people before we see a plateau but it’s the harsh truth of the matter.
Newspapers will continue to scale down and I’ve even noticed a trend for some going digital only! Yes that’s right cut out the production costs altogether to get the news online with minimal overheads. They can cut the printers, the paper costs, the ink costs . . . . but what you can’t cut is the power behind the pen. You can not afford to cut journalists.

It’s high time that News Publishers realise that their paper is not their key asset! Their biggest assets are the people writing the stories. Newspapers may decline and die off but good journalism will NEVER die.

The difference between that aforementioned 14 year old writing a piece on Wrexham FC and a sports writer who knows the league, the players, the history and the game but also is a fully trained journalist writing a piece on Wrexham FC is suddenly incomparable.

Someone once said that “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Content will always be king, it’s down to us as news publishers to give our journalists as many platforms and ways to market as possible.

Digital audiences for News publishers continue to grow.
It’s down to us as an industry to encourage the younger demographics to continue to come to us to find out what is going on around them.
The next steps forward for this industry are not necessarily technological, they could very well be Academic.

How easy would it be to create a roadshow of a journalist and an ad manager or a company trainer to go into schools in each patch? Speak to the kids and tell them that your title is the place to go to look for local news and sport. Explain to them what that news and sport is! It’s not just about the cat found up a tree across the other side of town, it’s news that effects but more importantly includes them!  There is nothing a teenager wants more than to feel included and treated like an adult.  Sounds obvious doesn’t it but these age groups don’t know who we are. We’ve worked in the industry so long that we are blinkered into thinking that WE are the owners of news in our localities.

It wasn’t this generation that stopped buying newspapers, it was their parents.
Just think about that for a moment!
Many young teenagers today have grown up in a house where there has never been a newspaper on the table.

How many of your staff buy a paper each day or take a paper home?
How can we criticise the internet and and our readers for deserting us when we don’t even support the industry we work in.

Don’t just give your staff a newspaper as a perk, insist they take one each home and flick through it. Children copy parents behaviour it’s a fact. If they see mum or dad reading it they will take a look themselves. My 15 year old son is an avid Wrexham Football fan, he goes home and away and he picks up my paper every day just to see if he’s in there, but this invariably leads to him looking at other pages.

I’ve worked on some testing projects in my career but none more so than the one we currently face.
Much of the time doors don’t just open up in life, they need to be knocked on.
We need to be targeting a whole new demographic now, to secure the future of news digestion.
Does this mean we need to tailor the content we produce to appeal to the younger generation? Yes of course it does
Does this mean we need to join up with schools and colleges to to spread our word? Absolutely
Does this mean we need to change to make this younger generation feel a part of something? No doubt!

We have to give them a reason to come to us? That reason? We need to be first with the content they want to read!