Local newspapers’ role in the digital era
For many years, local newspapers have long played a vital role in keeping communities informed and connected. They were very often the primary source of news and information for people in smaller towns and cities, providing not just coverage of local government, events, and issues that may not make it onto the national stage, they were also the place to go to stay informed of national and even international news.
However, with the rise of digital media and the decline of print journalism, many local newspapers have struggled to keep up with the demands of a rapidly evolving media landscape, and some have been forced to close their doors altogether. In my home country, Spain, there are around 500 newspapers, 90% of them can fall under the local and small tag. Around a 100 of them are long-term local and regional newspapers with a strong dependance on print-led revenue (either ads or subscription to print) and with online versions without any business model behind. It seems they launched online just because it was what they had to do but without any real plan. Today, more and more of these newspapers are experiencing how revenue is declining very quickly and many of them are being acquired by large media groups, whilst they lose their independence, concentration seems the only way forward.
Understanding that the importance of local newspapers is changing and the core nature of their value for local communities is evolving is critical for their survival. Today, local newspapers should prioritize coverage of local news, events, and issues that are most relevant to their community. Focusing on local stories can help differentiate them from national news outlets and provide a unique service to their readers, which will eventually contribute to more readers and more audience revenue, but which best and affordable practices are really making the difference, helping local newspapers not just survive but succeed in keeping independent and delivering differential value to their readers?
Successful stories in Europe
In the UK, where the regional newspaper advertising market has dramatically declined from £2.5bn to £241m in the last 15 years, and a concentration trend has led to the market being controlled by three big publishers, there has been strong growth in some areas including digital local and hyper local news in the recent years. One example is The Mill in Manchester, which has built a business betting on a newsletter-centered strategy. The Mill centers all their efforts on encouraging readers to subscribe to their email mailing list and it seems to be paying off. Launched in 2020, it has hit profitability thanks to reaching 30,000 readers and 2,000 paying subscribers, who receive four newsletters a week at a cost of £7 a month, or £70 a year. For The Mill, good quality journalism and useful local information directly to the email inbox turned out to be the winning play that is putting local news back in the game, proof of that is this year the newspaper is expanding its model to Liverpool and Sheffield.
Back in Spain, La Voz de Almería, an independent local newspaper in the southern region of Andalusia founded in 1939, experienced a huge growth in their digital subscribers numbers after attending Table Stake Europe (TSE), a program to support local news organizations hosted by WAN-IFRA and Google News Initiative. Leveraging audience analysis techniques used by many big publishers, the newspaper managed to move from just focusing on wider general audiences to identifying very niche segments. The first successful experiment was finding out that they had a strong presence of members of an elite military unit amongst their readers, which led them to build a dedicated section of the newspaper, a newsletter and a Youtube channel with content exclusively designed for this segment. After this first successful experience, the segment of foodies was also identified and the actions were repeated with more specific content and another newsletter. The foodies strategy managed to add more than 500 new registered subscribers in just a few weeks, which ultimately is helping the newspaper to implement a new subscription-based business model that will improve their financials and be less dependent on ad revenue.
First-party data and smart segmentation
These are successful examples on how local newspapers should look at the heart of their readers, understanding which are their motivations, which are the emotional reasons that make them choose them over other options as a way of building a smarter segmentation that can lead to more personalized experiences and eventually to more audience revenue. For that, leveraging first-party data can be very helpful, one single question at the right time and in the right place can make the difference. Identifying underleveraged real estate such as newsletters registration forms and less intrusive moments such as right after sign up, not only does it allow newspapers to gain critical insights about their audience in a simpler and more affordable way, it also works in a way that engages even more with readers by showing they will also benefit from sharing and that their personal data will not be traded.
At Upside Analytics our mission is to help local and small newspapers apply the methodologies and techniques used by the biggest newspapers to increase their audience revenue, because small and local news are democracy-enhancing businesses that need to be sustained.