As local print newspapers have declined and closed, traffic to local news websites across the UK has surged.
But how much of the traffic to local news sites is really local?
An analysis of traffic data to almost 50 leading local news sites reveals that many (of these leading sites at least) derive a significant amount of their traffic from outside their local region. Of the sites we looked at, only eight drew at least half of their UK audience from the region in which they are based. Twenty brands received less than a third of their UK digital audience from their area.
JPI’s Wigan Today and Newsquest’s South Wales Argus, topped the table with over half of their audience logging on from the titles’ respective local areas. They were followed by York’s The Press (55%), Bradford local The Telegraph and Argus (54%) and Lancashire Post (52%).
For this analysis, Press Gazette took a representative list of almost 50 major local news sites. To draw up our list, we took the biggest local news sites by audience using data from Ipsos. To ensure that we had a good mix of publishers we limited the number of sites from any one publisher.
Our final list was made up of digital properties belonging primarily to Reach, JPI, Newsquest and Archant as well as a few sites from smaller regional publishers such as KM Media Group. To determine where in the country traffic came from we used Ipsos iris data that breaks down each news brand’s digital audience by the 14 ITV regions in the UK. Press Gazette then assigned each brand a home region. In most cases this was one, but in a minority of cases we deemed a title to be rooted in more than one ITV region. Although ITV regions do not always perfectly match a digital newsbrand’s self-defined core area, they help indicate when traffic is coming from outside.
Among the titles with the most geographically dispersed audiences were Reach-owned Liverpool Echo (just 18% of its audience came from the north-west ITV region where the city is located), Manchester Evening News (MEN) (17% of visitors were from the north-west), Bristol Live (14% of visitors came from the west) and Devon Live (10% of visitors came from the south-west). In some cases particularly for the bigger regional news brands such as MEN and Liverpool Echo with audiences that exceed the populations in their local area, this likely means that local readers are well covered but that its content is bringing in additional people across the country. Although ITV regions are bigger than the traditional area many local print titles cover, MEN for examples reaches 47% of people in the whole of the north-west, while Liverpool Echo has a 32% reach in the same region. Their digital reach in their traditional print area would likely be at least as big.
Other sites such as MyLondon had a reach of 24% in London – yet is drawing in over two thirds of its audience from elsewhere.
The Yorkshire Post site similarly has a reach of less than a quarter (23%) of people in Yorkshire but attracts large audiences from around the UK.
Stories written to capitalise on SEO trends and popular national stories can draw in non-local visitors to local news sites, while in some cases local stories attract national interest. Other readers meanwhile might log on to read news from their home town despite living or working in another part of the country such as London.
David Higgerson, chief audience officer at Reach says that the company’s internal metrics that use Reach’s own definition of a brand’s core area often shows its local brands reach 50% of their local population each month.
Higgerson commented to Press Gazette: “Data tells us that our success in attracting readers from beyond our immediate locations is related to our success ‘at home’ – better content is simply better content.
“In some ways, the editorial mix has not changed much between the print-only days and now. But our online network gives local titles the chance to actually reap the benefits of their most engaging content whereas in the past, those stories might have only travelled further via other publications or the BBC.
“For example the MEN’s recent stories on airport chaos attracted readers from around the UK, and one colleague even saw people in Florida reading it. Other reasons people ‘out of area’ might read a local news story include breaking news, what’s on research for visitors, sport or a topic of interest that a title is an authority on.”
Overall across our list of sites, the average share of UK audience drawn from the local region was 36%.
When it comes to major publishers represented in our sample, on average Newsquest’s titles drew 43% of visitors from the title’s local area, followed by Archant which was recently acquired by Newsquest (42%), JPI (40%) and Reach (24%).
Steven Chisholm, group audience editor at JPI Media, said: "One of the beautiful things about news in the age of the internet is that great local stories can find a national, or even global audience without first having to catch the eye of a Fleet Street news editor or a producer on the TV news, so I'm not surprised to see that our websites and those of our competitors in the regional marketplace attract significant numbers of readers from what would be traditionally thought of as 'off-patch'.
"Our strategy also reflects that we have a diverse portfolio of brands, staffed by journalists with expertise in topics that resonate beyond our traditional geographic patches. A high frequency of high quality content in a specific topic is something that we see rewarded in search rankings and even in how third parties, like aggregators, are willing to work with us. The regional media often has unparalleled access and insight to offer on Premier League football clubs with global interest, for example.
"That said, local journalism is at the core of what we do and focusing on reader loyalty by providing local content that people in our communities engage with regularly is a key part of our audience strategy - as is finding more ways to reach them directly. Basing your digital business model purely on topping up your readership with transient users is an awful lot of hard work. For that reason, not to mention the fact that the vast majority of our journalists live and work in the communities they serve, the loyalty of our local readers is something we place great importance on."
Eleven non-London focused sites drew at least a quarter of their audience from the capital. Among them were brands based in areas near the capital - Essex Live (34%of its audience came from London), Ipswich Star (32%), East Anglian Daily Times (32%) and Kent Online (31%).
For all but six brands, their local region was the single-biggest geographical source of traffic.
Some are concerned that the need to chase advertising revenue based on a high volume of online traffic is hurting the quality of local journalism.
Commenting on traffic targets for local reporters, James Ball, global editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism wrote in Press Gazette’s sister title New Statesman last month:
"Local papers often jump to the top of Google’s results for stories that could run anywhere. They have no relevance or tie to the community the paper ostensibly serves… A journalist who is worried about their traffic targets could face the decision about whether to write up a meeting of the town council’s planning committee about a major new housing development — of huge interest to actual local readers — or whether to write up a Twitter fight that could get higher national traffic."
Last month Reach announced a new scheme that calls on its journalists to hit minimum benchmarks of between 80,000 and 850,000 page views per month depending on their role and the outlet they write for. Fellow regional giant Newsquest has implemented a scheme that pays bonuses to journalists who generate high numbers of page views.
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