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Think BR: Local press must stay local to preserve its future

Often written off as liner for the cat-litter tray or fish and chip paper, the local press remains one of the most trusted sources of information for millions of people across the UK, writes Jack Baird, media executive, Carat.

Jack Baird, media executive, Carat

Jack Baird, media executive, Carat

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It is rare to read anything positive about local or regional press. Gloomy headlines point to restructures, rationalisations and resizings of local press operations, with ‘consolidation’ the buzzword, inevitably followed by ‘redundancies’.

In fact despite the widespread doom, local and regional press has a bright future ahead.

The latest forecasts available from the Advertising Association indicate that the regional press industry will be back in growth by Q4 2012 and will continue to grow through 2013.

That is not to say though that the medium is not experiencing rapid and at times dramatic change.

Just the other week Johnston Press, one of the largest publishers of local media with 18 dailies, 230 weeklies and 223 local websites plus glossy monthlies, events and jobs to its name, announced plans to re-launch all 170 of its paid-for titles and sites by the end of 2012.

Editorships at flagship publications The Scotsman and The Yorkshire Post among others have come under threat as the company’s leadership has decided to scrap the role on some titles.

The shock departure of Scotsman editor John McLellan has been much-reported, as has Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield’s vision of a ‘Mumsnet model’ of themed digital destinations.

For Johnston, this marks a move towards a ‘platform neutral’ future, summed up by Highfield as a focus on local, social and mobile.

Highfield has said print is now a smaller part of the media mix, and that by 2020 he expects to earn equal amounts from digital and print products.

Those within the organisation have their reservations. "Highfield is right to concentrate on digital and he knows his digital stuff, but I think he has fallen into the trap of trusting his generals when it comes to the print side of the business," says one Johnston editor, who asked to remain anonymous.

"These are the same people behind the poorly rolled-out content management system of two years ago. Basically the new strategy is just a more extreme version of that failed model.

"Soon there will be just five types of pre-designed Johnston Press papers."

For this editor, print is still vital. "Print revenues have been falling for years, but it still makes up the vast majority of our profit. Newspapers are still very relevant. I hope I’m wrong - but a one-size-fits-all approach seems to undermine the strong editor who knows what works for his or her readers."

The Johnston editor is correct in asserting that newspapers are still relevant and Tory MP Louise Mensch recently used the Daily Politics soapbox to call for local newspapers to be subsidised by the government as a vital part of local community.

Local and regional press remains the UK’s most popular print medium and reaches bigger audiences than ever before.

The 1,100 regional and local newspapers in the UK are read by 33m people a week, according to the Newspaper Society.  And 14m people read a local paper but not a national one, according to BMRB/TGI.

Advertisers can take heart from the fact that more than 60% of people act on ads in local papers, according to Crowd DNA/Loving Local. A Newspaper Society survey also found that 66% of people trust advertising in their local paper.

And local press remains the most effective media channel for generating word of mouth conversations, according to IPA Touchpoints.

As far as online is concerned, 42m unique users rely on the 1,600 associated websites every month.

It is widely accepted that future growth will come from the digital area - regional press digital audiences have grown by 14% in the last year alone.

Publishers are responding by ramping up the smartphone and tablet launches, as demonstrated by the Johnston strategy and the launch of iPad apps for its flagships.

Digital technology was put to good use by local press during last year’s riots. Thanks to timely updates and the trust local papers are able to harness, for many publishers the ongoing disruption was a real gift, giving them record-breaking volumes of web traffic.

The readers’ appetite for relevant and up-to-the-minute information was voracious, and those publications that were able to respond really reaped the benefits.

But it is important publishers don’t get carried away by the brave new digital world. The importance of regional and local press in people’s lives cannot be ignored.

Taking daily or weekly print away from readers may not push them towards digital content, but in fact isolate them from their most trusted source of relevant news.

Closing district offices and making reporters redundant is not going to lead to improved local content.

Certainly a quick glance at local newspaper websites shows regional and national news still makes up a large part of the content included - what happened to ‘if it’s not in our area we won’t cover it?’

Local press needs to be aware that local is what it does best, local is why readers are loyal to it - and so local has to stay local to preserve its future.

Jack Baird, media executive, Carat

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