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October 6, 2022

Scottish regional dailies celebrate return to growth with online subs breakthrough

By Charlotte Tobitt

Scottish local news publisher DC Thomson has hit 25,000 digital subscriptions 18 months after setting a target of reaching 75,000 by 2025.

The milestone comes after a radical shake-up of its newsrooms that included the creation of teams focusing on specialist areas rather than geographic patches, an “impact” team creating slower-paced work like investigative documentaries, the appointment of audience development roles and the upskilling of existing staff, and a focus on “quality reads” and engagement metrics rather than page views.

The news brands included in the digital target are the UK’s best-selling regional newspaper the Press & Journal, based in Aberdeen, and its sister title in Dundee, The Courier. The Sunday Post’s newspaper e-edition also contributes, although its website paywall is not yet set up.

Press & Journal editor-in-chief Frank O’Donnell (pictured, right) told Press Gazette: “When you’ve spent your entire career on the back foot looking at declining metrics, to be able to think that genuinely figures are going up in a sustainable way, well what greater reward?”

And Courier editor David Clegg (pictured, left) said: “All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a journalist and with the current pension scenario I’m going to have to get another 30 years out of this career so we need to build for longevity here.”

Clegg joined in late 2019 from his role as assistant editor at the Daily Record while O’Donnell followed in May 2020, leaving The Scotsman where he was editor. Both joined print-centric newsrooms but were enticed by DC Thomson’s goals of “a digital strategy that actually had a sustainable business as the end goal,” as Clegg put it.

Clegg said that in the past his conversations “about the future of journalism were always about decline and retrenching and when I was approached about this job, it was the first time I’ve had a conversation about wanting to do growth, and growth in a sustainable way, growth with high quality journalism invested in its community and it wasn’t a digital strategy which was really just a shield for redundancies”.

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O’Donnell said joining the Press & Journal from leading The Scotsman “wouldn’t have normally been a route to take” but he was “very convinced by the company’s determination for the brands to survive”.

He was told by DC Thomson director David Thomson, who at the time was chief operating officer, that the company was not interested in today’s or tomorrow’s figures, but in keeping future generations reading the Press & Journal and Courier.

Conversely, O’Donnell said his previous employer, JPI Media (since bought by National World), “flirted” with a paywall introduced under his editorship – but without changing the content in a way that showed people why it was worth paying for.

“I felt that a subscription model was really the only genuine path to longevity, to ensuring the health of the brands and no one really in regional newspapers is doing that properly and finally here I thought this is an opportunity with DC Thomson to genuinely with the investment and with the vision to actually see whether this can work,” O’Donnell said.

How Press & Journal and Courier changed approach

O’Donnell and Clegg worked closely together in their new roles, introducing more collaboration than the two geographically disparate newsrooms had previously. This was aided by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw more remote working collaboration.

The daily papers also began to work more closely and less competitively with the evening papers in each location, meaning the Courier and Evening Telegraph in Dundee now share a website, as do the Press & Journal and Evening Express in Aberdeen.

DC Thomson digital subscribers on Press & Journal

Press & Journal and Evening Express digital subscriptions page

Clegg said the work of evolving the newsrooms from a print-first model was like “redesigning an engine while the car is running”.

Part of the restructuring from traditional geographic patches included the introduction of a live news team, a crime and courts team that means reporters are back in every court on the titles’ patches, and other teams around subjects with some shared specialisms across Dundee and Aberdeen such as politics, food and drink and nostalgia. In Dundee, for example, other new teams were built around health and wellbeing, schools and family, transport and environment and business.

O’Donnell said that subsequently the biggest impact for him had come from changing what stories were being written “to push a higher quality of content and a more ambitious style of content”.

He pointed to the content development team across the daily newsbrands led by former Sunday Post editor Richard Prest, which works on “impact” journalism, data journalism and special projects.

The “impact” team, similar to an investigations unit, works on a slower pace of journalism. One member of the team, Sean O’Neil, won Local Reporter of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards last month for his part in a 40-minute documentary about Shaun Ritchie, who went missing in 2014 and led to one of the biggest missing person investigations in Scottish history.

O’Donnell recalled that when the documentary was released in October last year, people were asking what TV channel it was on as they “didn’t expect that kind of journalism” from the Press & Journal.

He said the documentary drove more than 1,000 subscriptions and said this “shows if you do something that is so impactful, and so compelling, in your community then it’s going to make a difference.

“I suppose there we probably could have written many, many more smaller stories with that same effort. But would they have delivered the same result? Probably not.”

The introduction of an obituaries team to bring obits to life digitally in a way that had not happened before was another way of moving the traditional connection between the reader and the newspaper to an online sphere.

Clegg said: “Newspapers used to be really important in the grieving process… and I think just by the nature of the world, a little bit of that has been lost. And I just felt if we can get that back, that sense of having treated someone’s life with such respect and care and done such a good job on telling who they are, there’s a real way just to remind people of the importance of what we do.”

O’Donnell said the Press & Journal and Courier still had “really strong connections” within their communities but they needed to re-engage with a younger cohort of that audience who had fallen out of step with the print newspapers.

“I think in some ways, it’s reconnecting with a different section of our audience that probably do want high quality local journalism that’s focused on the community, that’s championing their area, but they want it in that digital format and they want it with fewer ads, higher quality content, all of that kind of thing,” he said.

‘True’ and ‘quality reads’

To ensure a focus within the newsroom on that high quality content, the main data they look at is a “quality reads” metric which Clegg said was about engagement rather than a “blunt page view tool”.

The Courier was recognised for this at the Scottish Press Awards in September, winning news website of the year for “choosing to reject clickbait in favour of in-depth features and hard-hitting investigations”. The Press & Journal was also honoured as daily newspaper of the year, which O’Donnell said in his acceptance speech was down to the team showing “there does not have to be a choice between producing top-quality online news and the sort of daily print product our communities have come to know and love”.

The acronym “true” – true, relevant, unique and engaging – has also been introduced. The “unique” portion means press releases are out, unless the journalists can take that information and do something with it, for example.

O’Donnell said the idea  was to ensure the titles do not “fall into the trap of doing what everyone else is doing” because they have to deliver value for subscribers rather than content they can find elsewhere.

Clegg added: “In many ways it is what The Courier and Press & Journal have always done: unique, high-quality journalism rooted in its community. It’s just that has helped us reframe it for the digital world.”

He said the new philosophy “came from the ground up, it wasn’t imposed by us”. Early in the process all levels of the newsroom were asked what they thought the titles’ mission should be and what they wanted to achieve and produce.

This helped the editors bring the newsrooms with them on the digital transformation journey, they said, as did the fact it was clear it was being done in a deliberate, strategic and unrushed way and not as a front for redundancies.

Clegg said: “I think the secret to it was actually they knew that we were doing it in good faith. They knew that we were doing it because we wanted everyone to thrive, that it wasn’t a cover for cuts, that it wasn’t anything other than us wanting to make this newspaper that we all love have a longer life or be sustainable for the 21st century.”

O’Donnell compared this to the digital acceleration process at his former JPI newsroom, saying: “It was quite a different process I think because there had been a lot of cuts over the years in that newsroom, there was a degree of cynicism from some as to the purpose.”

He acknowledged there is “a lot of learning to be done”, pointing to figures from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report that showed only 9% of people in the UK paid for online news in the previous year and just 5% of those paid for a local title.

He said: “I think the amount of knowledge that David and I have gained over the past year about what subscribers are prepared to read, I can imagine in a year’s time we’ll look back thinking we knew nothing… I think we probably got to the space over about ten years where most people could tell you what stories were going to be high on page views… But actually the answer to the question which is the kind of content that people are prepared to pay for is far more confusing.”

More changes are still to come, including the introduction of push notifications, working with a provider on making the paywall more sophisticated, and looking at article page templates to better recirculate people to topics they may not know the news brands have invested in such as food and drink and health and wellbeing.

But they hope their learnings could be useful to other regional publishers around the UK too. O’Donnell said: “I think that we are pushing ahead into an area that others really haven’t in regional publishing and the lessons we learn, I think, will be useful.”

‘Print is our bedrock’

And there are developments in print too, with Clegg saying that throughout the digital transformation they were “very determined to protect our print products at all costs”.

On Saturday (1 October), the Press & Journal launched 16 extra pages of content “written for print” such as cartoons, more lifestyle columns, and more “reflections on the week and the week to come,” O’Donnell said.

The Press & Journal is the UK’s best-selling regional newspaper with a circulation of 28,482, while The Courier was third on 22,168 in the first half of 2022 after the Irish News.

“We feel that the Saturday print product is our biggest sell of the week and we feel that there’s elements of that paper that we want to give it more of a weekend feel so it’s more about the reader rather than maybe about the world,” O’Donnell said. If the reader response is good, The Courier could see a similar change in the coming months.

“A lot of the change has been in digital so it’s inevitable that you end up talking about that bit but print is our bedrock and we still do print extremely well.”

Picture: DC Thomson

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