Friday, April 03, 2009

Can Local Newspapers Still win at Digital?

Originally written as a comment piece, 03/04/09, for

While writing this post, I had an encounter I'd like to share. Stopping for a cuppa in a local cafe I found most seats full and asked a chap, sat filling in the crossword over a pot of tea, if he'd mind if I join him. He didn't mind at all and moved his papers so I could put down my tray.

"Help yourself," he said, nodding towards the tabloids on the table with a shrug. "They're todays papers, but yesterday's news."

We're living in the Information Age. We all know a local blogger with his iPhone can get a news story out in seconds and to a targeted audience via the likes of Twitter, Seesmic or to their active social group on one of hundreds of social networking portals. 

They can monetise this on a blog with AdWords or Affiliate Programmes, often automatically. The audience now expects content up-to-the-minute and are growing accustomed to having it on tap when it's convenient for them to read it.

A friend of mine made a comment last week: "The midweek Man City v Aalborg match went to penalties, so the paper couldn't print the score. I didn't know who'd won. What's the point?"

Familiarity with the internet, mobile, and the likes of iPlayer and Sky+, is slowly making the evening news a thing of the past. The rise of a tech-savvy new generation, born into an age where they can engage at any time, means we have to look to new ways of delivering our content. 

Plans have recently surfaced in th UK from Sir Jim Rose, former Ofsted chief appointed by ministers to overhaul the primary school curriculum, which said children are to 'leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information and forms of communication'. All this, and these fresh new consumers are getting used to getting their information for free.

Can we compete with this? Yes, I really believe we can. But we're going to have to seriously step it up a gear. Sorry folks, but things are going to have to change. Today. With the credit squeeze not run its course and readership down, sacrifices need to be made.

Sure, we dropped the ball a bit to start off with, a lot of folks did, but we're going to go seriously wrong and seriously miss the digital boat if we're not careful. I hope we haven't already. As large organisations, often spread out across the country and sometimes lacking those direct channels of communication, many have a certain resistance to change and a poor ability to respond. So do small local institutions. Put simply, we can't afford this any longer. If you sit around thinking about a new idea, you're invariably passed by someone else doing it.

We need to stop trying to sell papers through the internet for starters. Offering partial content and driving users to our print product is just alienating them. The online audience is a sceptical one, and who is going to rush out and buy today's paper when they are already sat at home surfing the net or reading this on the bus on their mobile? 

Digital is where we should be driving traffic, where we can provide the excellent journalistic content we have in abundance to a targeted online audience. Engaging them in debate. Allowing free commentary and inviting opinion. Giving the visitor a sense of ownership in our established and trusted local brands. Giving them resources and information they need to take their community forward. 

Here we can sell our advertising and upsell services. Here we can offer the audience a truly local and lasting experience they’ll want to revisit.

We live in troubled times. Redundancy overshadows everything these days. I appreciate cuts have to be made and the business has to be streamlined for the future for us to survive, but, let's make sure those cuts are happening in the right places.

Much of our industry, print journalism, is lacking perspective in this new arena. Many in print media have such a fondness for their medium and its tradition they're loathed to look beyond it. Many simply don't understand the urgency or the medium. 

We can't all stay up-to-date on what's happening out there in the digital soup and see what new avenues are open to us. Trust me, unless it's a full time job, it's almost impossible. We're dipping our toes in, sure, but we need to commit. We need to dedicate resources to staying informed and to moving forward.

It's important that we have digital teams with the resources they need to respond, fast, to changes and advances in digital media. If you already have one, hold on to it like gold dust. These are not the people you want to be making redundant right now, no matter how tempting it might look on paper. 

Invest: we have to give them good, industry-savvy, leadership. We need to grant these people the ability to control our digital brands directly, to say, 'we are going to make video for the website', and give them the power and resources to make that happen. Don't leave it too late. These people are the new Gutenbergs.

Results are happening, slowly. Internationally, ex-Morning Call editor Roger Oglesby is leading the first major American newspaper to switch from print to entirely online - the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last newspaper on Tuesday, March 17. 

The print world is watching as it maximises resources and cuts print overheads. 
Johnston Press is making a foray into social media and experimenting with 'embedding its sites at the hearts of communities' through Kick Apps etc; and have a remit to 'make sense of all the information that's bombarding people' on a local level. 

Northcliffe is great at exploiting specific database content (take a look at for an outstanding delivery system for white-labelled local obituaries) and its slow addition of video and RSS to the 'thisis' network is a good beginning. 

Trinity Mirror has started using Pluck's SiteLife features on its national sites, offering commentary on all suitable articles, the ability to build site profiles and to make recommendations, breeding social connectivity and community. 

It's not fast enough. This is stuff other news brands and the independents were doing two years ago. The internet is awake and generating news and ideas 24/7. We need to look our best and be there, front and centre, now.

Editors have to embrace digital wholeheartedly and journalists have to 'write for digital'. Look to those in your paper who write for digital already and strengthen what they have by giving them the ability to try out new ideas. Be open to those ideas and be ready to respond to what's new. 

Let's deliver our stories from where the story is happening and tell people directly that the information is there to be read. We need to write for online as well as offline. Write for Twitter, and RSS, and Facebook apps. Think titles, keywords, that important search engine optimisation that will bring in the long-tail traffic your advertisers need. 

We also need to let the user in. We need to grant them a platform for their content as well. While offering our own professional opinion, well crafted and respected as it is, we need to place that content shoulder-to-shoulder with the voice of our audience and of the community. 

We need to aggregate other local news and become portals for local affairs and information. We need to engage our communities in new ways, and to make ourselves THE place people come for everything local. 

We also need to present in a clear, concise, and user-friendly way. The search engines will bring us the traffic if we do it right, and right now that's one of the only online sales metrics easily available to us. We have masses of long-tail local content, information, and history - let's get it out there quickly (and monetise it).

To the larger brands I would say that you need to give a general directive to all parts of the business that an online experience MUST happen, quickly, with as little resistance as possible. Experimentation in finding other ways for us to distribute and aggregate our journalistic and advertising content has to be a priority. Nothing is yet written in stone. 

I'm sorry, but our print editors can no longer be expected to stay up-to-date on what's good for their local digital brand. This lack of information can't stand in the way of, basically, making money. Our large organisations move slowly and, at the moment, simply can't react quickly enough. This has to stop, even if (I hate to say) it means taking away the autonomy of local editors to affect what we do with mobile, online, and with our digital information. This is the future of the business we're talking about here after all, and our business is journalism and selling advertising.

We have the best content and well-respected brands. Get your digital team in sync and make sure the people leading them are tech-savvy early adopters who know the industry. Give them the power to react, and the funds to do so. We can still do this, and we know we have to. Let's keep our minds, and resources, open to a digital future.