Are free newspapers dead and buried? As Trinity Mirror newspaper managers ‘quietly’ close another title, is there a future for the poor old free ‘rag’

advertiser

The Sentinel Advertiser is one of a number of free newspapers which have bitten the dust in recent months.

Is the free weekly free newspaper on the endangered species list?

In the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s the free newspaper was a must-have and must-be seen to have toy of every newspaper group.

They were a cash cow, free to thousands of more readers than their paid for chums, hitting thousands of homes a week, even if readers didn’t want them.

Often cheap to run with cheaper advertising, they were the ugly sister, but effective in bringing in revenue.

Advertisers loved them with their large distribution network.

Hacks were not so kind and laughed in darkened corners of pubs as they described using them for their cat’s litter tray.

Free newspapers were like border guards, making sure no other newspaper group was tempted to set up a paid for or free newspaper in their area.

Quietly, before Christmas, one of my old newspaper’s, The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent, closed its free newspaper, The Advertiser.

A bit of a pauper’s funeral for this once hallowed piece of newsprint.

This newspaper was a beast at its pomp with multiple editions and a vast distribution, up to 80,000, if my memory serves me right.

It took the title from the original Sentinel newspaper which used to be called the Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser — which hit the streets on January 7, 1854.

As I remember, it used to bring in more than £20,000 a week but slumped to around £5,000.

Its death knell was sounded long before it finally closed with distribution slashed without hardly a word to anyone outside the building.

When they first started, free papers had their own staff, but as time and cost-savings gripped the industry they were put together by the same staff as the main paper, as an after-thought.

While I was at The Sentinel , the Advertiser was reinvented on at least three occasions. It used to be full of all the local stories the news editor didn’t fancy.

Then an edict from on high went out from Northcliffe HQ that the newspapers had to be filled with the best of the stories from the paid-for title.

This sent editors into despair. Already under fire from falling circulations and the demands of the internet, the free paper was now in direct conflict with the main title.

But this idea quickly hit the rocks and the next reincarnation came when it was decided that free newspapers should just have trivia and gossip with little or no real local content.

I redesigned The Advertiser into a modern ‘i-style’ newspaper with a load of short gossip stories, no real leads, big pictures and wall-to-wall trivia.

Editors sighed collectively, no more local content and one of the thorns in their circulation woes removed.

At another time, withdrawing your border control newspaper would be tantamount to letting a rival onto your patch.

But these closures just keep coming, Trinity Mirror  recently announced closures and merges of four free newspapers.

Trinity Mirror is not a lone in closing titles. Research by the Media Reform Coalition and the Press Gazette showed that Newsquest, Johnston, Archant and Tindle have all been forced to close titles.

Some of the closures have been due to mergers and having two titles on one patch when only one is required, some others have been due to cost-cutting because the title wasn’t making enough cash.

Since 2005, 198 newspaper titles have perished.  It’s not all bad news, a snap-shot by the Press Gazette shows that in 2015, 46 local and regional newspapers closed with 29 opening, a net loss of 17.

Despite the fact that some people have the guts to set up a new title, the feeling is that you don’t really need a free newspaper to protect your daily because you would need blind optimism to set up a newspaper in these troubling times.

On the other hand, a niche magazine might work nicely, but that’s for another discussion.

So, does this mean the free newspaper is dead? Far from it.

The endangered species tend to be those attached to a bigger paid-for title or in an area where a takeover has happened and multiple titles from the same group are fighting over the same ground.

Soon, when cover price fails to bring in a good chunk of the profit like it did for newspapers such as The Sentinel, the inevitability is that paid for titles will follow the path of some newspapers and become free or part-free.

The London Standard is already free and papers like the Manchester News are free at certain times of week, many other papers are in a similar position.

Just check out the ABC sales figures and look at the last column which shows actively purchased sales, or the percentage of pure sale, for example, the MEN is just over 56 per cent.

Others will follow this trend as the cover price income drifts into oblivion.

It has been interesting to watch the cover price philosophy of late. I have always believed that newspapers have been too cheap.

This meant there was a culture of keeping the lid on the price and rises were one or two pence at a time.

Now, as circulation drops off, the newspaper groups in their wisdom have kept hiking the prices up. The policy seems somewhat flawed.

If a product is doing well, add a few pence on and hope sales are not hit too hard. Now the policy seems destined to bleed the paper dry, whack up the price, and watch the sales decrease at a faster rate.

The cocktail for decline is greater than just everyone is going online. Higher prices, poorer distribution, cheaper paper, poor print quality, far fewer staff, fewer editions have all helped to stick the knife in.

But whisper it quietly, despite the decline, guess where most of the cash comes from? Yep, print…for now.

P.S Did you see the study by Munich and City University academic Neil Thurman which describes how online readers spend 30 seconds a day on the national newspaper web sites compared with 40 minutes in print.

This is surely the reason advertisers will never spend the same amount of cash online as they do in newspapers, they simply have the audience for longer in print.

Trinity Mirror’s editorial big guns Neil Benson and David Higgerson stirred by Croyden Advertiser’s Gareth Davies after Twitter storm

Croyden

Former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies created a social media storm with his criticism of Trinity Mirror.

 

There have been few occasions as far as I can recall when two such prominent editorial executives such as Trinity Mirror’s Neil Benson and David Higgerson have been moved to respond in such detail from the criticism of one reporter.

I understand that there was an emotional outcry when former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies spilled the beans on how he felt TM was destroying his beloved newspaper.

The response from Mr Benson and Mr Higgerson showed as much passion for what TM is doing as Mr Davies obviously has for the Advertiser and his belief that TM is ruining it.

As stated eloquently by Mr Higgerson, TM hasn’t banned stories which generate less than 1,000 page views.

But, from what I know one of the firm’s digital documents states that 43 per cent of stories on TM’s top 12 web sites have generated an audience of fewer than 1,000 page views.

This is in a section which asks how well the firm’s journalists know its audience. The inference from this section clearly is that 1,000 pvs is a benchmark for stories…

Based on this, you can perhaps conclude that there’s a misunderstanding by some of the TM team over what is required, this isn’t a ban, just a quiet word of guidance.

What is clear, is that TM has a plan, this has not always been the case for many newspaper groups. It is based around growing its digital audience, so the focus of the newsroom is clearly geared towards this.

Analytics of the audience is a tool to help this growth. Never has an editor had so much quality intelligence about its audience.

It means, for the first-time, editors can base decisions on hard facts and not just finally-tuned instincts. I do think Mr Benson describing journalists as ‘arrogantly’ choosing what they want to write about as slightly harsh.

Most journalists I have worked with write stories which they believed were important to their readers. There was never a day when an editor and his top team worth their salt didn’t talk about sales and how to improve them.

The times a gleeful newspaper sales manager entered a news conference to proclaim a sales spike on the back of a top story are too many to remember.

No, the newspaper men and women I worked with were obsessed with their ‘audience’ (readers) so there is nothing new on that front.

The difference is that now there is more evidence available to work out which stories the audience is reading.

What would you rather rely on, fact or instinct with a teaspoon of evidence from the sales history of a newspaper?

However, there is a word or two of caution here, the web audience is different to the newspaper audience, so what works well online doesn’t necessarily reflect what might work well in print.

There is little evidence to suggest newspapers are doing well thanks to the digital-only policy, indeed, sales decline for many still smashes double figures.

I was also concerned with the point raised that there’s more content in the newspapers. Recently, sadly, I spent a day counting stories and pages in a couple of TM’s biggest regional papers.

I used the same formula as I had used when I was a deputy editor and editor and it was clear to me that rather than there being more stories there were fewer. I used to aim for between 65-100 local news stories a day in my papers and a minimum of 15-17 overnight pages.

Clearly, from my research, this wasn’t the case and there were a lot of centrally produced pages, which I didn’t count, because I wouldn’t have previously.

This is not a direct criticism, but there are fewer local stories, fewer pages and newspapers cost a lot more. With staff cuts and an emphasis on digital, something has to give.

One of the reasons for fewer stories is because a journalist will be asked to go out on a story, cover it live, write Tweets, post it on Facebook, a version or two online and then it is shifted to the paper.

This takes time, so one story will be polished, but there’s many other stories that won’t be written due to lack of time. The idea is to get, say 20, great stories online and get the audience to come by building content around them.

I guess the way to resolve this is to harvest content from elsewhere to publish, but once again this takes time, unless you can get out the automatic content scrapers.

When we got rid of the editions of the newspaper and printed overnight the newspaper felt dead, we dreamed of those adrenalin busting days of swapping stories around and writing breaking news.

This died with overnight production, but the web gave us a continual edition and I think reinvigorated the newspaper office, the buzz returned and that was great.

However, the demands are many for the journalists at any newspaper group. The 21st century journalist has to have an array of skills, which is exciting for the next generation.

At the centre of this is the ability to tell a great story using core journalistic skills but they also need to understand how to attract an audience using analytics, understand Twitter and Facebook, after all, just view these as modern day bill boards, the ability to use Facebook Live or Periscope, to edit video and write great SEO.

Challenging, yes, but this multi-skilling has helped to reinvent a business which was floundering. It is because a journalist is asked to do so much that massive effort is put into key stories.

What these stories are, is now based on a history of performance online. Is this click-bait then or the ability to give the audience content they want to read?

After all, a newspaper and a website are products which have to be sold, I can’t see Tesco’s selling something no-one wants to buy.

Similarly, why would a media organisation provide content no-one wants to read?

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of concerns about the ability of firms to hold authority to account, for example, how many local councils and health authority meetings are covered today?

Newspaper groups may well argue that the reality is that no-one wants to read this anyway, where is the audience, so why cover them?

I completely understand Mr Davies for being so annoyed with the way TM has developed. But what choice did the firm have?

Newspaper sales are in terminal decline and there’s a chance to keep the business going by throwing resource into digital.

The issue however comes down to cash. Most of the money still arrives from newspaper advertising and sales, as sales decline, so will the cash.

However, no newspaper group will ever be able to get the same revenue returns online, even if the cuts go deeper.

So we will all have to accept that it’s a different business, one with less income, better audience knowledge, journalists with different, but more skills.

Is it better or worse than when I started? Difficult to say, it’s just different. I often had the discussion with my newsdesk about content.

I constantly challenged them on whether the stories newspapers had traditionally covered were the stories for the 21st century readership?

What we are seeing is that the content produced has to reflect the new needs of the audience.

The web has proved that a re-focus of what is good content is needed and that is why it has changed and Mr Davies is unhappy, as are many other journalists who plied their trade when regional newspapers were in their pomp.

There is an argument to say that the policies of modern newspaper groups has accentuated the decline.

But for at least two decades the industry dithered over what to do with the web and while this went on the world passed it by.

Now there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Regional journalism has some great challenges ahead. My hope is that surely, continuing to tell great stories means that it will continue to be the best job in the world…for now.

 

 

 

 

The folly of 24 as it joins the graveyard with New Day…and regional editors continue to face print v digital dilemmas

 

24

After the demise of New Day, 24, the North’s National Newspaper has also shut after just six weeks.

 

Like most media pundits, I have no pleasure in being right that 24, the North’s National Newspaper has shut after just six weeks.

I flippantly said that not even Kiefer Sutherland could save this 24, sadly, like so many people in the newspaper industry, we wished it success, but deep down knew it had little hope.

Six weeks is not long enough to see if something will work. However, I would be more concerned about the thought processes which set the wheels in motion to launch the paper in the first place, as I was over the strange decision to launch New Day, which lasted just nine weeks.

I admire entrepreneurial spirit, but with the landscape increasingly bleak for papers in the regions, just look at the latest ABC figures, and the next batch will not look much better.

The figures suggest that the newspapers with the lowest sales have a lesser decline because there’s nowhere else to go in terms of decline, while the biggest papers just keep losing big chunks of sale.

The dilemma an editor faces today is where to put his resources. Within a company such as Trinity Mirror there is a clear digital first strategy.

Previously, I have discussed how, despite putting a brave face on it, the newspapers are taking a back seat  as TM newspapers strive to get a slice of the digital audience.

This has left many journalists at the group upset with industrial action threatened at some of the newspapers.

But the reality is that there’s a relentless move to bring in the audience and get page views at all newspapers.

Based on this the editor has to decide to whether to put all their eggs in one basket and just do digital or carry on doing the paper and hope no-one notices that digital performance is lagging behind.

Of course, you might say that editors need to do both. The reality is that with fewer staff than ever before you cannot be all things to all men.

The philosophy of digital content has shifted. In the early days, regional newspapers used to put up every story written for the newspaper, often in one bulk upload.

Things are more sophisticated now and there’s a constant flow of content with particular emphasis on key times of the day and for the digital operation, rather than throwing up as many stories as possible online, to polish fewer stories and build more content around it.

The outcome is that many of the digital stories can take time to put together. If a reporter is out live blogging from an event, or on Facebook Live, taking pictures, and sending out Tweets, the chances of doing many more stories in a day is limited.

So when the print gang turn up to produce the newspaper they may not have as much content to play with as they had in a bygone era, where story content and value for money were high on the editor’s agenda.

What I have noticed is to compensate for the drive on digital in the regions, paginations have gone down, as has story count, while at the same time the cost of buying a newspaper has risen dramatically.

While the decline in sales has been endless, the above is a recipe for a nose-dive.

But does it matter? The business is firmly placed in digital land and the newspaper is just one aspect of that.

While The Independent took a brave step to bin its paper version and go digital only, I still think that a modern media firm needs both a presence online and in paper.

At the moment the revenue from newspapers sales continues to boost the coffers of these firms, but increasing cover price will inevitably see the readers disappear.

Once this happens, a different model for print will have to be created and the once great regional beasts will probably have to consider either charging £2 a copy or going free or part free.

But, as the grip on staff numbers tightens, who is going to want to read regurgitated content in the newspaper which appeared online 12 hours earlier?

My thoughts were always to make online the first read and the paper the last read.

The Times has taken a similar stance, both in paper and online. It doesn’t published continuously unless a big story breaks. This allows the paper to print online in an edition structure and the benefit is that readers get the fuller story rather than endless snippets.

This flies in the face of just about every other news media outlet, but it is not without merit when you think about the endless content put out when a story is breaking and having to piece it all together like a jigsaw.

It is an experiment worth watching but perhaps reflects the readership of The Times, 55+, who frankly do not fancy endless news feeds.

However, we all have to remember that the paper is still the cash cow. Simply, advertisers pay pence for page impressions and the cash coming in is not enough and certainly will never reach the scale of the amount of money made by newspaper businesses in their pomp.

Finally, I was with an SEO news guru a week or so ago and they stopped me in my tracks. Passionately they spoke about how to get your news on top on the Google pile and it’s often down to the fine art of SEO headline writing.

Who were the best headline writers? Sub-editors. The expert went onto say that media groups will regret not having this much-maligned breed back in their newsrooms, surely they said, they would have been the best SEO headlines writers in the business?

Food for thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should journalists be gagged by their editors from putting their views about Brexit on personal social media?

brexit

Should journalists be free to write their own opinion on their personal social media? Has an editor the right to ask them to ask them to stop writing their own views?

 

‘Some people’s idea of freedom of speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage…’ – Winston Churchill

Most journalists believe in the idea that they are still part of the Fourth Estate, holding authority to account and preserving freedom of speech.

But the rise of social media has certainly tested this freedom to the limit. Many editors have been forced to wince every now and again when one of their troops says something they are unhappy about.

This is particularly true if their staff are saying something they may not agree with.

So, if an editor spots one of his journalists commenting on something they dislike, have they the right to tell them to stop?

If this was the case, wouldn’t the editor be at the very least going against all the historic and ethical principles of free speech?

I agree that most of us can tell a tale of how one of our colleagues or friends wrote something which made us shudder.

And firms, such as Sky, are keen to view the social media output of people they are interested in employing, to make sure there’s nothing too controversial.

Personally, I repeatedly tell any youngsters I know looking for a job to clean up their social media, or at least have a professional one and personal one, which should be for their mates only.

So, back to journalists. Has an editor the right to impose a gagging order?

Surely journalists should be free to express an opinion or is it right if their editor warns them to be neutral, even if the editor is clearly biased?

I guess, if the journalist is writing under the banner of a media outlet, then they have to think carefully about what they write.

They cannot be seen to bring the organisation into any kind of disrepute, but there has to be a sensible boundary.

So, if impartiality is required by the business, then they have to sit on the fence.

However, what if they are expressing a view on a personal account?

Ok, most of their mates will know that they are a journalist, but even journos deserve to have a private opinion, don’t they?

What’s more, as I have often experienced, editors have a view and ensure the paper or web site support that personal opinion.

I have known editors, for example, who insist on writing headlines on certain issues so the ‘tone’ is right, in other words, supports their view of the story.

So if you are sitting in an office listening to the editor mouth off about their opinion and write headlines to match it, would you perhaps think that you had a right to also have your say?

It is easy to hide behind impartiality to stop journalists having an opinion if that suits your game plan. But the idea that journalists should be gagged because of their profession seems unfair and even unethical.

In the Brexit debate, many people have taken sides and debated the issues, this is real democracy, as opposed to informing journalists to keep quiet, that’s tantamount to tyranny.

Journalism is built around the premise that it is a bastion of freedom and democracy.

These are fine principles as long as you practice what your preach and effectively telling staff to keep quiet is a bit of a blow to this philosophy.

Personally, I always encouraged freedom of speech, but would warn journalists that their reputation was always on the line, so sensible comment was preferred to a bias rant.

In the case of the Brexit, I would have asked for the same. If writing directly under the banner of the newspaper, I would have said stay balanced and pose questions rather than forcing out an opinion.

As for any other account, I would encourage them to choose what they say carefully and professionally, but journalists are entitled to an opinion.

It has to come down to a matter of trust. You have to trust the professionalism of your staff to do the right thing.

Anyway, much of what is written in a newspaper has an opinion behind it, just look at all those campaigns which are so often heralded.

They are clearly designed around a bias opinion, or the editor’s own agenda, so it is nothing new for journalists to have an opinion, like everyone else.

So it would seem rather cheap if an editor was to put the fear of God into his journalists by sending out a ‘Big Brother’ is watching you memo.

If the opinions of a journalist are against the majority, or the editor’s own views, it doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of being broadcast.

Editors who attempt to enforce a policy on journalists inevitably lose the respect of their newsroom.

Are the BBC going to sack Danny Baker for his rather outrageous and possibly offensive remarks about the England team?

I think not. Even the BBC believe in some kind of free speech.

So I would say to all journalists, have a voice, our industry is a broad church of opinion and if it becomes restrained by dictatorial editors, the world will be a poorer place.

Meanwhile, I know I keep saying I’m going to write about skills audits and redundancy. Ok, it doesn’t sound too much fun, but there are some unusually dark arts at play.

More of that to come.