Newsquest has said it will create 50 digital journalist jobs as its subscriptions success has led it to reinvest £1.5m per year in local journalism.
The regional publisher rolled out a premium subscriber model across about 60 of its news brands last spring – on all of its daily newspaper brands and its larger weekly titles.
The model gives readers access to 40 articles per month before they have to start paying. In addition around 10% of the content on each website is “premium” for subscribers only.
Newsquest editorial director Toby Granville told Press Gazette many subscribers had signed up before reaching their free article limit because they wanted to support their local newspaper. He added that the premium content was driving a lot of sign-ups and would help many sites double their subscribers this year.
“We are at the start of this subscriber journey,” he said. “It’s a new stream that we can use, which helps us towards building sustainable newsrooms and sustainable local journalism for many years to come.”
Reinvesting in journalist jobs
Granville said the income earned from subscribers over the past year has been reinvested back into journalism to grow both page views and engagement with local communities.
The roles include 32 NCTJ-qualified digital journalists to be based in Newsquest’s newsrooms in Glasgow, North Wales, Essex, Hampshire, Dorset, Bolton, Lancashire, Darlington, Durham, Yorkshire, Hereford, Wales, Somerset, South London, Sussex, Worcester, Oxford, Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Cumbria.
They will earn between £20,000 and £25,000 per year and the job ads indicate they “won’t be stuck at home” but will continue to work in local newsrooms post-Covid.
Three digital sports journalists will also be appointed in Bolton, Glasgow and Southampton.
Fifteen further jobs will come from a new regional content SEO team – 14 journalists and one editor – to be based in newsrooms in Scotland, Wales, Essex, South Coast, North West, North East, London, Midlands, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Cumbria.
Newsquest put around 40 journalism jobs at risk last year, mainly in sports and photography, plus more in advertising sales following “heavy declines” in ad revenues in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Granville said Newsquest wanted to build a sustainable future without relying on programmatic advertising which brings in a fluctuating amount of money. By comparison, subscribers tend to stay for at least two to three years, he said.
However, growing page views remains important as programmatic will continue to be part of the revenue package alongside digital subscriptions and print sales.
Newsquest’s portfolio grew its digital audience by about 50% year-on-year in 2020 despite the introduction of the paywalls.
“It’s not going to be a fully subscription model and it’s not the silver bullet, but it is going to be something that will help underwrite a number of journalists in our newsrooms… knowing full well that investment is going to be there – rather than for programmatic advertising where you never really know what’s going to be around the corner,” Granville said.
Audio content driving engagement
Granville revealed Newsquest’s sports journalists have been trialling a new audio app for US parent company Gannett which allows them to record clips such as brief interviews or match analysis and easily upload them alongside stories.
He said this subscriber-only audio content is “converting a huge amount of subscribers for us by providing that added value” and will be rolled out across the group in other areas like news and court.
He said: “What we want to do is bring our websites to life a lot more and we’ve learned through lockdown that a lot more people are listening to the news as well as reading it, and enjoying podcasts, and so we’ve been really pleased with the results so far of that.”
Granville said sports reports had not traditionally brought in huge numbers of page views as they are dependent on the size of a team’s fanbase, but said it was “our most engaged level of content”.
He said sports reporters were “actually generating a lot more subscribers than other areas of news and content because they’ve got such a highly engaged level of fans who want more and more and more out of our sports reporters and the kind of content that we can give them”.
Chief executive Henry Faure Walker (pictured) said: “The focus that we have placed on growing engaged local digital audiences over the last few years is paying off, with most of our sites now reaching almost 80% of their local population.
“This coupled with the success we are having with digital subscriptions gives us the confidence to launch a major expansion in local journalism.
“This investment underlines our commitment to those towns and cities where our local brands have been the number one news provider for decades. We look forward to welcoming new talented digital journalists to join our teams in local newsrooms embedded in communities up and down the country.”
Some titles had already been trialling the model with “encouraging results” before last spring – most successfully the Northern Echo and Bradford Telegraph & Argus.
The Herald and The National in Scotland have had metered paywalls for several years but are viewed differently to the regional portfolio as a national and a niche title, respectively. They each have around 10,000 digital subscribers.
According to Granville, the most successful websites for subscribers of those that launched a metered paywall last spring are the Bournemouth Echo, Oxford Mail and Brighton Argus. These top performers have around 2,000 monthly digital subscribers each.
First head of digital subscriptions appointed
Newsquest last week appointed its first head of digital subscriptions, with Gerard O’Brien joining from Future where he was consumer marketing director.
Newsquest group product director Simon Hill said there has been “impressive growth across our new and established subscription-focused titles, significantly ahead of our expectations”.
He said O’Brien would bring “the senior leadership and marketing expertise we need to continue this growth. His experience across such a wide range of publishing sectors, business models and communities are exactly the right fit to lead our acquisition, retention and data strategy”.
Newsquest is simultaneously upping investment in its digital product team, creating new jobs for data analysts and web developers to work on its local news platform.
Parent company Gannett has more than 1.1m digital subscriptions across its portfolio of news brands as publishers across the Atlantic also pursue reader revenues in the face of falling ad revenues.
Newsquest’s main rival Reach, the UK’s largest commercial and regional publisher, announced its own plans for a recruitment drive creating more than 50 local journalism jobs last month.
In total this will take the number of jobs created for Reach’s Live regional news network since the start of 2020 to 170 – although 550 jobs were lost across the company in a restructure last summer.
Press Gazette analysis last week showed how traffic to UK local news websites surged last year but advertising revenues failed to follow.
Digital advertising revenues for regional news brands fell by 23.3% to £183.3m even though online display revenue overall (including news brands, Facebook and Google) was up 10.4% to £7.07bn.
Picture: News Media Association