How can local newspapers survive in a digital age? Gray Graham and Anita Greenhill examine findings from interviews, thoughts from leading industry experts and macro-level trade insights to try to answer this question. One thing is certain: newspapers must respond to this digital age of media turbulence fast.
In this article we investigate the strategic response of newspapers to the chaos, risk and uncertainty being created by “digital age” turbulence1. The purpose of the analysis is to answer the question of how newspapers can survive in a digital age. In surviving, we suggest they face a major strategic challenge both to identify and then build a digital business model and strategy which sustains itself. Digital age turbulence means market conditions are being created for the news industry by the Internet, Web 2.0 and civic media technologies. Turbulence, with its consequent chaos, risk and uncertainty is now the normal condition confronting news industry economies, markets and companies 2. The resulting chaos has two major effects for managers to consider: one is vulnerability, against which the news firm needs defensive armour; and the other is opportunity, which needs to be exploited. Many of the news companies around the world today were ill prepared to succeed in an environment of continuous, unpredictable turbulence.
Digital Age Market Normality
Some types of newspaper, for example the weeklies, have found a niche and are financially more successful than evening newspapers. Going forward, the news media needs to be deeply aware of how the underlying content economy works (e.g. its market normality)1.
Newspapers’ previous dominance was a matter of geography, and to some degree demographics, with trusted content. They are now faced with the task of focusing on diversifying the value streams of their content.
Our position based on the evidence we have collected in developing this article is that the local newspaper model is not totally bust: local papers need to rediscover their local roots, so that local advertisers know they are reaching their market and readers can see that reporters are working on their patch as a watchdog and friend (so they remain as vital ‘community’ assets) 3.
There is clearly a variety of key marketing realities confronting the local newspaper market. Although arguably online growth is potentially achievable for a ‘trusted’ and branded distribution operation of the local newspaper, print still remains the main revenue driver for newspaper publishers. However, advertising is declining for both national and local newspapers leading to major cost reduction and cost restructuring initiatives. The issues faced by local newspapers in particular, present a “mixed” picture internationally. Both in the US and the UK, for instance, this segment is seen as being at great risk. One source recently predicted that half of the 20,000 jobs in the local newspaper industry in the UK would be lost in the next five years. In Germany though, the local newspaper market is particularly large and still relatively healthy 4.
Strategies for Survival
New technologies such as enhanced web services, holograms, 3D printing, smart phones, tablets, news applications and RSS offer newspaper publishers new opportunities to reach various target audiences, although a number of those interviewed during the development of this article tell us that finding innovative solutions with revenue models that are profitable remains challenging. However most agreed that new technologies are key to attracting younger audiences, who are harder to reach through newsprint, while acknowledging the need to retain mature audiences as a more staple revenue stream5.
One source recently predicted that half of the 20,000 jobs in the local newspaper industry in the UK would be lost in the next five years.
Engaging with emerging technologies helps meet the demand for more targeted news and services whenever and wherever the customer’s news demands. And when it comes to content, as one US newspaper publisher told us: “whether it is in print, online or in mobile, we have to be able to deliver it.” In addition to the ability to provide ubiquitous content, new technologies offer opportunities for publishers to monetise content in new and seemingly expanding ways.
“We have sold subscriptions… on a Kindle. People seem to understand that on a Kindle they have to pay… (and) there are a number of content providers … that are charging for content on the iPhone.” Creative Technologist (Boston/Cambridge area newspaper)3.
The main strategic failings occurs when the news manager relies on the technological companies to develop their market solutions, because you are forever adopting what Miles and Snow term a “defensive” strategic position of reacting to market change, largely driven by that of players in the ICT sector5.
Despite expansion into various media channels, newspaper publishers seem to be having difficulties integrating the variety of news channels available to serve their advertisers more effectively. Product market verticals offer the opportunity to reach a specific target audience using these various news media channels. As well as reaching the audience efficiently, adopting this approach enables advertisers to gain knowledge of their target audiences, and, as a US publisher told us, “Advertisers are willing to pay more for delivering high quality and targeted audiences.” In addition to advertising, tapping into news media channels as vertical sites can be monetised through subscription fees and transactional income. Paid online content is a source of debate within the industry and publishers struggle to determine what, if anything, readers will pay to view behind a ‘walled garden.’
Smaller newspapers may not have the scale to create competitive verticals, but consortia and partnerships between these smaller news providers offer potential solutions. There have been successful examples of these in Germany, and unsuccessful ones in the UK.
“We should learn from how the Internet has enabled unbundling music. You used to have to buy an album for £10 for just two songs. Now you can just buy the two songs. Pay TV is the same. With newspapers in the past you bought the whole paper, but you may have only wanted the sports section.” [Community Strategist (Local newspaper, Manchester area)].
Strategic Insights into the Future
‘Niche’ is used here in a broad sense. It is applied not only to topic-specific preferences but also to the application of a more location-specific focus6. A key example, particularly evident in North America, has been the development of ‘hyper-local’ or ‘local-local’ newspapers and associated websites. The large Gannett newspaper group in the US, which owns USA Today as well as 90 regional and local titles, has been focusing on developing sites addressing hyper-local content at the neighbourhood and suburban level, including catering to the interests of special communities8. These newspapers often use collections of mobile journalists on the teams of local papers, such as the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida.
Hyper-local community papers have also performed well in Germany in recent years, as their 100% local market reach makes them highly attractive to advertisers. In fact, several North American publishers have indicated to us that adopting a niche approach produced more revenue from advertising than the subscription revenues for either niche or mass-market products 3. The sites associated with these titles also enable the publishers to reap the benefits of hyper-local search advertising, using postal codes for example. In Germany, newspaper publishers still use traditional models to reach niche audiences. They are realising the benefits of targeted advertising for newer consumer segments by launching special supplements.
Hyper-local community papers have also performed well in Germany in recent years, as their 100% local market reach makes them highly attractive to advertisers.
As Clay Shirky notes in his essay “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,”
“That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.9” At this moment of uncertainty and confusion, different groups are experimenting with a wealth of new models designed to produce local news, adapting to one or more of the changes outlined above.
One particular view of the future of the news media, which is grounded in the concept of “Civic participation” as defined by MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman10, is that there is a need for the local news media to better understand the new market ecosystems emerging in the digital age, to build tools and systems that help communities collect and share information and connect that information to action. To do this requires a change in philosophy of the local news media to work closely with communities to understand their needs and strengths, and to develop useful tools together using collaborative design principles. The Boston Globe’s ‘68 Blocks’ project provides an example of the initial steps by a newspaper to open its ‘content’ shaping to local community participation.“We particularly focus on tools that can help amplify the voices of communities often excluded from the digital public sphere and connect them with new audiences, as well as on systems that help us understand media ecologies, augment civic participation, and foster digital inclusion” 11.
The quest for a sustained economic model that can work in a digital age to support local news media operations, whether commercial or non-profit remains elusive. Newspapers have a traditional competitive advantage in that they can differentiate themselves in the quality of their content, but in a digital age, both the reach and value of the content has been eroded. To re-build their reach/value they will need to re-orientate their competitive strategy from ‘cost leadership’ to ‘niche-focus.”
However, a new day in which newspaper executives act boldly and in concert to save their industry is hard to imagine; they are risk averse and, by nature, too independent. While nothing before us or on the horizon promises to replicate precisely the depth and sweep of the daily newspaper, the search must continue. The news firm, if it is to survive, must continue to experiment with models and products embedded in high content quality and community presence. They cannot rely on the technology service providers to save them. The absence of a definitive answer to our original question: can the local newspaper survive in a digital age, means the reality for now is chaos and turbulence and much uncertainty, both on the pages of the struggling local newspaper and in an online world of many economic models and experimentation.
About the Authors
Dr Gary Graham is based at Leeds University Business School and is a founding member of the Future Cities, Sustainability and Community Resilience Network. This network is focused on the use of creative and cultural foresight techniques to map out a better social, economic and ethical future for ordinary people living in inner city communities. Gary is a visiting research scholar at the MIT Centre for Transport and Logistics and the Freight Future Lab. He has authored two books and guest edited three highly ranked special issues and reviews for TFSC, Futures, EJM and SCM: an International Journal.
Dr Anita Greenhill joined Manchester Business School in September 2003. Anita received her PhD from the Engineering & Information Technology Faculty, Griffith University in 2002. Anita has over 60 published articles in various fields of interest and expertise: Information Systems, Virtual Communities, Sociology, Skills acquisition in Information Technology, Gender and Information Technology, Policy and Education and Qualitative Research Methods.
1.Casilone, J. (2009). Chaotics: The Business of Managing and Marketing in The Age of Turbulence, AMACOM Publishing, New York.
2.Graham, G., Greenhill, A.,Shaw, D., and Vargo, C. (2014) . Content is King: News Media Management in the Age of Turbulence, Bloomsbury, New York. Forthcoming: November 2014.
3.15 in-depth interviews were conducted with news executives in the Boston/Cambridge areas (US), Greater Manchester/Liverpool (UK), and Dresden/Saxony (Germany). May 25 – Aug 15, 2013.
4.PWC. (2013) Global Entertainment and Media Outlook. https://www.pwc.com/outlook. Accessed: December 23, 2013.
5.Webb, A (2013) The Future of News is Anticipation. http://www.niemanlab.org/ Archive: December 20, 2013. Accessed: December 23, 2013.
6.Miles, R. and Snow, C. (1978). Organizational strategy, structure, and process. McGraw-Hill Book Co, New York.
7.Meyer, P. (2004). The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. University of Missouri Press, Missouri.
8.PEW. (2014) State of the News Media Report. http://stateofthemedia.org/ Accessed: Jan 5th 2014.
9.Shirky, C. (2009) Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/ Accessed: May 21, 2013.
10.Zuckerman, E. (2014) News in the Age of Participatory Media. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/news-in-the-age-of-participatory-media/ Accessed: 10 January 2014.
11.Boston Globe (2013) 68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope.
http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/specials/68blocks Accessed: 20 January 2014.