We should be proud of our energetic, reliable and committed regional media. Its journalists shine a light on all kinds of issues, from innovations in our economic landscape through to local democracy and meaningful community stories.
But their resilience and innovation are being tested like never before. Something which has been said many times over the past two decades. Yet it feels more pertinent now, because we’re starting to see significant change taking shape.
The challenges have been well-known for some time: monetising content, reaching younger people on social media, and understanding modern media consumption across all demographics.
The solutions have centred on enforcing cultural shifts in editorial and advertorial departments to embrace, test and adopt a variety of online services and platforms. This might be sponsoring content on YouTube, launching a podcast, or paid-for online packages incorporating digital advertising. It’s also increasingly digital-first with SEO reporters, live journalists and community content editors leading the way.
Building a digital paywall
The New York Times was one of the first global news outlets to introduce a paywall in 2011. Our national media, like the Times and Telegraph, soon followed suit, perhaps encouraged and even culturally permitted by the huge success on-demand subscriptions like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
However, you might find understandable newsroom resistance to one of the pillars of democracy being ransomed for debit card details. Plus, some argue there hasn’t been a clear economic argument: readers can still get their news for free on their local BBC or ITV news website, radio or TV bulletin (though you could split hairs about the license fee in the case of the BBC) or via Facebook community groups and news feeds. All without annoying pop-ups too.
But in a significant move just last month, the East Anglian Daily Times (EADT), one of the biggest publications in the region, introduced digital subscriptions via a new smartphone app, as it significantly reduces free access to local news online.
“I realise that, after many years of being able to see our web content for free, this may come as a shock to some but I very much hope you will consider doing so [subscribing] to help us continue to provide the dedicated local journalism we have been providing to Suffolk since 1874,” wrote EADT editor Liz Nice. The move follows Newsquest’s acquisition of Archant last year.
“When something has always been there, it is easy to take it for granted but we have all got used to subscribing to television content and I hope, in time, the same will be the case with local news,” Liz added.
Will the subscription model be viable for smaller, regional publishers? Or will they discover the limits of a paid-for model when people are used to a lot of information for free? There is only one way to find out.
Paving the way
Well-respected brands like the EADT can and should be commanding a subscription in 2023. The Eastern Daily Press (also Newsquest) has followed suit in Norfolk. Will the paywall pay off? It has almost 150,000 Facebook followers – around one in six of the county’s inhabitants. It too has a loyal, engaged audience.
Taking the leap into digital subscriptions at a local level still requires a creative approach with content and digital platforms. Loyal and engaged audiences still need to be pulled, not pushed.
According to Ofcom’s UK Media Nations 2022 report, how-to videos (64%) and videos uploaded by the public (60%) overtook news (59%) as the most popular genres for adults to watch. The pandemic propelled news to the top of the rankings, as people constantly sought authoritative and granular updates, but those gains were lost last year as normal life resumed.
Meanwhile, 18-24s are now more likely to use social media as their main source of news (39%) versus established news sites or apps (34%), according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023. What incentives could attract them to pay the equivalent of a Costa Coffee or Deliveroo subscription?
How can the likes of Essex Live (Reach PLC), which enjoys over 2.8 million website visitors (double the county’s population), and the Cambridge Independent, which had a very commendable weekly print circulation of 19,000 in 2019 (latest figures), repurpose and recreate stories for social media audiences? What will be the response from the likes of BBC Look East and ITV Anglia, if any?
Hardened reporters at a newspaper where I once worked often referred to the publication as the ‘cockroach of journalism’ – a typical British blend of nostalgia and pride no doubt at play.
They have survived this long and found a way to co-exist with broadcast competition, citizen journalism and social media.
This has unfortunately required cutbacks across all departments and a fundamental shift to digital output and monetisation. Paywalls in 2023 could represent a symbolic turning point in the history of our regional press, as our beloved Victorian publications cross the Rubicon into the TikTok dominated world of instant gratification.
With the right support and investment, I think we can be optimistic that they’ll swipe right into the next decade.