Why regional newspaper web sites will end up a busted flush and how to save the jobs of local journalists

The first newspapers, if they can be called that, often wrote about and targeted specific markets/audience. Regional newspapersA lot of what was written was about politics and was spiteful and untruthful, similar to today?

These were the days before mass media. Early newspapers/pamphlets were so small that if you lived a couple of streets outside its ‘circulation’ area there was little or no chance that you would have a clue what was being written about.

Slowly, the content broadened and started to look like the offerings served up in today’s newspapers. It was thanks to the Victorians that the term mass media was born.

Taxes were cut on newspapers so the chances that a decent business could be made from the world of news became a reality. Add to this the machinery to produce newspapers in large numbers and suddenly things started moving, and they did.

They moved rapidly away from the concept of the niche market. Why write content which was limited to a couple of streets when you could talk to a whole town, city,  county or country? The bigger you were, the more profitable.

So here was the birth of the mass circulation newspaper, both nationally and regionally. But the world has changed. As I have said previously, mass media has been replaced by personal media.

Readers today want to pick and choose what they read, back to the old pick and mix section in Woolies. They no longer want to have to skim the news to find what they want, it has to be delivered to the doorstep.

This makes you ponder the usefulness and longevity of local newspaper web sites. Regional newspapers seem firmly set on continuing producing the same kind of site without any thought of how successful it can be in the future in terms of audience and advertising.

It is inevitable that the web sites will grow rapidly for the time being as the life is beaten out of the newspapers by continually increasing the price and further reducing costs, but this rise will have a ceiling.

The battle to retain web audience and reduce the high bounce rate will become as tough as retaining newspaper sales. The policy of using web bait to randomly grab the audience for a brief few seconds will not build the audience.

One of the main problems is that the web sites reflect too heavily the newspaper ethos of being all things to all readers.

We know that this cocktail of content is not what people want. The future both in terms of revenue and content for the regionals must surely lie elsewhere than the busted flush of a web site only model.

If readers really want specific content, let’s give it to them. Why give readers unfathomable web sites when the media business can offer more sophisticated ways of delivering content?

Ok, keep a web site if it allows  newspaper owners to sleep at night. But for the sake of the business they have to look at producing specific content through the use of apps.

Advertisers would be right to question how successful their ads are on a newspaper web site and whether they get value for the pittance of money they pay.

However, offer them the chance to advertise on a specific content app, which has quality journalism and targets a niche audience which is after their product and you can see how this might be a better, more profitable business.

For example, why not have an education app for your area. Writing about schools, play groups, universities, bringing up children, opens the doors for advertisers desperate to hit the family market directly. What the advertiser will know is that every time someone clicks on the education app they are likely to be after what they are offering.

Apps are more expensive to create, but the cost is coming down, and the likelihood is that newspapers can charge a premium for advertisers to buy slots on the app.

Without doubt, the existing newspaper web site business model will not be able to bring in the income these businesses will want. However, rather than cost-cutting, why not expand and modernise the model?

There is a great future for the young journalists. The need for quality content is greater than ever before. The issue we have to accept is that it will not be within traditional media.

If the wise regional media executives want to truly modernise their business and move away from the stale web site scatter gun approach to content, they will look to niche apps. If you think I’m wrong, just consider for a minute how many specific apps you now turn to for your content.

Think about your interests and then how frustrating it can be to find exactly you want in chaos that is online. But if you had different apps with your interests on without the sweat of fighting with the web, it would make life so easy.

Regional newspaper groups have the tools to change, but have they got the guts to make the plunge or just go for the easy option of more cost-cutting?

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Web bait, bounce rates, page impressions…is there a need for greater transparency in regional newspaper web figures?

There will have been the raising of a few glasses of bubbly and pats on the back when the latest web figures for the regional press were revealed recently.

Unique users is only one way regional newspapers can use to measure  audience online.

Unique users is only one way regional newspapers can use to measure audience online.

The amazing year-on-year rise for unique users is laudable, in any other industries they would be handing out bonus payments left, right and centre to the staff.

In the offices of the Manchester Evening News the success was jaw-dropping, an incredible 194 per cent rise in the last year, more success than the city’s most marketable products, its football teams.

Other papers such as the Newcastle Chronicle and Birmingham Mail showed three figure increases. Even my old stomping ground, the Stoke Sentinel hit 88.1 per cent rise, top, top performances.

To be honest, these figures shed sunshine into the pretty gloomy world of the regional press, which has seen circulation decline, a massive reduction in staff and daily cuts in budget.

However, behind the scenes, most newspaper groups may still be worried. Why you may ask? You have to remember that unique users is only one way online audiences can be measured.

The other ways include page impressions, the number of pages the audience views on the web site, time spent on the site and the bounce rate, how much of the audience goes on the site to read one story, but then disappears somewhere else.

In the race to have the biggest online audience and spruce up the odd regional newspaper group for a possible sale, one tactic being used is known as ‘web bait’.

This simply involves putting up a story so tantalising that the audience rushes in…but then disappears down a hole. Have you ever wondered why a story appears on a local web site and it has no connection to the area?

Many a night as I looked despairingly at my web figures did I pluck an obscure story from somewhere else to bolster my uniques. The only criteria was that it was naughty enough to grab a reader.

Sex, bizarre or both, they were the sort of stories I was looking for…

Whether it was local it didn’t matter, my only concern was to ensure I avoided the inevitable ‘why are you so rubbish’ conversation the following morning from those in charge.

The problem is that the audience will jump on board to read the story for a second and then off into the darkness. There’s little or no loyalty.

This method of gaining a crowd cannot be healthy for the longevity of any web site. I hold my hands up, I followed this smash and grab policy despite my better judgement.

To gain an audience to please those to whom I answered,  I gave the nod to using the word Fappening, a mixture of happening and…the rest you will have to look up, but it is to do with sex.

This word was associated with the ‘break-in’ and release from the iCloud of celebrities in the nude. We expertly found that the word Fappening was being used as a search term to find these stories and I recklessly decided to use it to go with the story we were doing, we needed the uniques.

I and my brow-beaten team quickly noticed that the audience numbers were quiet during UK time but once America had woken up our number of unique users went mad.

For 48-hours we were the heroes of the web as the audience just kept popping in. The problem is that most of it came from the United States.

This type of incident has been and still is repeated across regional newspapers when the pressure for unique users becomes intense.

One of the issues for a local advertiser maybe that they may want to know where the audience comes from before they decide to spend their hard-earned…or at least ask a few questions and go further than how many unique users a site has.

The regional gang needs to work-out how to keep the audience for longer.

It would also help if at least the audience came from Britain, unless we expect an American to travel a few thousand miles to pick up a Ford Ka from Joe Blogs Motors of Sleaford?

So, the latest web figures, while celebrated, should also be taken with a pinch of salt and we need to consider whether they are truly accurate and if greater transparency is needed by showing page views, bounce rates and time on site.

It is equivalent to newspaper sales managers having to show what percentage of their sale is bulks.

Just a thought. Here’s the original story from the Press Gazette http://bit.ly/1I0x1nf