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’

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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.

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Regional newspaper top brass take on ‘sniping’ university academics over newspapers’ golden era comments…online v newspapers (Part 346)

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Academic Sean Dodson has come under fire from the media industry for his criticism of regional journalism in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?

 

To those working in the regional media I am poacher turned gamekeeper. I was squeezed out of the the profession  and ended up teaching the fine art of journalism to the content gatherers of the future.

For the last few weeks, I have stood on the touchline as the classic row of how it used to be better in the golden era of journalism has rumbled on between academics and those still plying their trade in the industry.

KM group’s Ian Carter admits that ex-journo now academic Sean Dodson hit a nerve in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?

Sean, a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, is critical of today’s journalists complaining about listicles and user-generated content.

But Ian and David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s Digital Publishing Editor, were a bit miffed by this, with Ian describing Sean as sitting on the sidelines and ‘sniping’. Ouch.

To be fair to them, the regional newspaper crowd have probably had a bellyful of criticism, unfortunately though, in journalism, it comes with the territory because it is a public-facing industry.

I digress.

It is as easy for those in the business to criticise academics who are no longer on the frontline as it is for academics to write despairingly about the industry they love/loved.

What it does show is a passion for journalism and I for one rather like that.

Having said all of the above, here is my defence of Ian and his colleagues.

As an academic, even though I still also consider myself as a journalist as well (dual professional), it’s our duty to to stay in touch with what’s happening in the industry.

I was surprised in the summer when an academic almost choked on his nicely chilled Sauvignon Blanc when a journalist lecturer friend of mine told him he now never bought a newspaper.

He gathered all his news online, he added.

What most startled me was the response from the wine drinking lecturer who couldn’t quite believe what he had heard, his blood pressure seemed to spiral out-of-control.

Of course, the outcome was that he ranted at my friend about throwing in the towel and being a traitor to the newspaper industry and journalism.

Far from it, my friend’s comments were just a reflection on reality and not past glories.

Indeed, my friend is one of the most passionate advocates of journalism, in whatever form, I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

As I left the conversation I was left to ponder on whether some parts of academia were still stuck in the past.

As for me, I fret that I may have missed the latest trend in journalism or a different way of working as I sleep, let alone during the time I’m awake. Yep, I need to get a life.

Here’s the plug (but it’s truthful) I want my journalism students at the University of Derby to have the most up-to-date education in the ways journalists work.

So, not only do I spend time in newsrooms, I speak regularly to people in the business so I have quality intelligence on the latest techniques or theories.

Attending conferences where cutting edge news organisations talk about how they work and why they work in that way is also essential.

As an academic/practitioner it’s all about having up-to-date professional currency.

The course I teach on is a digital journalism course. Do I expect all our students to work in so-called traditional media?

No, I don’t, some will, others will write content for businesses, charities, football clubs or anyone or any organisation which wants quality, modern content with high journalistic standards.

Everyone is a publisher now, so they all need quality content. We teach the core skills of journalism, like being able to tell a great story, but we also teach that once a journalist has a story, there are many, many ways to tell it now.

I’m in the camp where I don’t think that regional journalism is any better or worse than it used to be, there’s an argument for both.

In the so-called golden days of journalism, when Northcliffe Newspapers used to have annual profits as high as £96m, I saw, like Ian, some terrible, lazy journalism in newspapers.

I remember having to wake up journalists to do some work, I found reporters sleeping under their desks.

A colleague of mine recounts a tale of how in a district office the old copies of the newspaper were laid out in the shape of the bed, so the reporter could have a sleep after a liquid lunch.

However, these are just great anecdotes, they do not define the journalism of the era.

There was some amazing journalism in the so-called golden era, but there is equally some brilliant journalism and journalists now, it just might does not look the same.

So who do I back the academics v industry battle of the golden era?

Like most former regional journalists I mourn the past, we were a cash rich industry and we had a blast, producing sparkling newspapers and enjoying the riches of the industry.

We worked really hard, we played hard as well.

It’s a difficult argument to say one generation worked harder than another. However, from my knowledge and recent visits to newsrooms, the 21st century journalist is working very hard.

The business is more demanding now, it’s bound to be with the massive reductions in staff, but we mustn’t forget, that technology has helped journalists to get stories easier as well.

But the modern journalist has many more skills and jobs to do, as Ian rightly points out. At the university we are teaching students to tell stories for print, online, video, broadcast, radio, audio, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

They need to understand audience software and how to interpret that, be masters of SEO, take pictures, understand content management systems, aggregate/harvest content and maybe do some html coding.

Why are we teaching this? Because this is modern journalism, these are the skills a journalist has to have.

With regards to content, I have often said that I was worried the traditional news agenda was not necessarily fit for today’s audience.

We used to have little intelligence on buying habits compared with today’s constant analysis of audience.

However, I do feel that the newspaper and online audiences are different. The issue is that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult or if at all possible to write different content for both online and newspapers, which I think is needed.

As for the nature of the content, no-one read every story in a newspaper.

What online offers is an immediate understanding of what interests readers, so why write content that readers are not interested in?

There’s the argument that much of this online content does not fulfil the Fourth Estate principle, but the reality is, how much content ever did tick this box?

There is still a lot of investigative journalism going on and it’s a fallacy that regional newspapers spent everyday chasing after Fourth Estate stories in the ‘golden era’.

Criticisms of listicles by the golden era brigade is also futile. The reason listicles exist is because the online audience like that presentation of this content and if researched well and with good information, they are an excellent way of presenting content.

Anyway, listicles are hardly a new concept. Throughout my career in newspapers we constantly produced added content to a lead story.

We used to call them panels or sidebars…not as sexy as listicles.

Are they trivial? Well who are we to say that if they are ready by thousands of people? I actually find many a good, fun, informative read.

I ask my students to produce listicles but apply good journalistic practices, well-researched, well-written and quoting people when appropriate.

As for the  concept of click bait, it is also old hat. We have always been keen to flog a story hard and get people to read it.

Why did we spend so much time on the front page, fretting over as cracking headline, a hard-hitting intro’, the right photo and intricate detail in the front page puff?

We didn’t sweat buckets over this to turn readers off, it was to lure them in, call it newspaper bait.

So what we are creating at the university is multi-skilled geniuses, journalists who can tell a story in many ways.

Why, because that is what a modern journalist needs, whoever they write for.

Forget the bickering over better or worse than this or that era. We need to start to appreciate the difference and let the industry evolve.

Don’t worry, I have not been paid off by the regional press…yet…but I do try to seek balance, I know, it’s a bit old school.

Just maybe, this is the golden generation of change for journalism.