How to make quality news pay is the central dilemma facing the journalism industry in the digital age – and nowhere more so than at the local and regional level.
Local news plays a vital role in uniting communities, giving a voice to the most vulnerable and holding local authorities to account, but it is a role that has somewhat diminished in recent years.
Along with the rest of the news industry, local news has seen circulations dwindle as readers migrate to digital. The loss of classified advertising to specialist online websites has also taken its toll.
This combination of factors has led to cutbacks and closures that have reduced the local news industry and threatened its future.
Press Gazette analysis shows a new reduction of at least 265 local newspapers in the UK since 2005.
Recently published research across UK local authorities has shown that newspaper circulations declined from 13.6m in 2007 to 5.4m in 2019, a drop of 60%, drawing a link between lower circulations and lower voter turnout.
The regional press still relies heavily on print advertising and circulation revenue for profits, both of which have been hit hard by Covid-19 lockdown measures advising people to stay at home.
There are four major regional news publishers in the UK: Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror), Newsquest, JPI Media (formerly Johnston Press) and Archant, each of which is pursuing a different online strategy.
Two of the big four regional publishers have faced serious financial struggles. JPI Media was formed by creditors in late 2018 after Johnston Press went into administration, and is once again looking for a buyer.
Archant has been bought by a private equity firm and has put forward proposals for a Company Voluntary Arrangement which will see the company’s creditors receive only a portion of what they are owed.
Profit and revenue figures for UK regional press giants over the last five years
Note: Reach figures include its national titles.
Two prevailing approaches to making online news pay have emerged in the last few years, one chasing reach and scale, which can be sold to advertisers – and the other turning to reader revenues through a paywall or alternative paying model, which can offer a new source of income.
Paywalls / Subscriptions
Subscriptions, which cost from £5.99 per month, are now a firm part of the regional news group’s revenue strategy after successful trials, with plans to expand them further.
Their implementation has been led by demand, according to editor-in-chief Jeremy Clifford, and was planned before the coronavirus outbreak, part of a strategy to move the group’s bigger brands, with their larger audiences, onto subscription sites.
“The belief being that gives you a slightly more robust way of operating, because you understand the readers who are paying for the content,” Clifford told Press Gazette.
“And from an editorial point of view, rather than just the company point of view, we wholeheartedly endorse the fact that content should be paid for by readers in the same way that they pay for it in print.”
He added: “It’s a good development for us in terms of making sure that our journalism is valued, but equally it’s about trust, and we’re seeing a growth in the sentiment from readers about wanting to access trusted journalism.
“Trusted journalism comes at a cost and that’s a differentiator between what you see from the trusted brands, such as ourselves and publishers like us, and what you get in the social media world as well.”
Clifford said programmatic advertising continues to make a “substantial” contribution to JPI Media’s coffers and that subscription revenues form only part of a diversified revenue strategy at the local news publisher.
But the fact remains that the ad industry has slumped during the Covid-19 crisis and uncertainty remains. Even before the outbreak, JPI Media’s bosses were actively searching for new sources of income amid fears over the “continuing decline of advertising revenues in our industry”.
Clifford said subscriptions had “certainly have become more of a pillar” during the pandemic, “but that pillar was part of our strategy anyway”.
JPI Media would not reveal what proportion of its total revenues now came from digital subscriptions, but said its three main digital revenue streams were programmatic ads, direct advertising and subscriptions.
But there are other benefits to subscriptions besides a new source of income. “We have far more information and a greater relationship with [subscribers] in terms of the way we interact with them”, said Clifford.
“The subscriber base gives us: one, a relationship with these people; and two, the basis of real revenue stream.”
Martin Little, JPI director of digital content, said 5% of JPI Media’s online audience consumes 55% of its page views while the other 95% are “very transient users who actually in our view are never really going to pay”.
Little said the group focuses on the habits of the 5% of loyal readers “what they’re interested in; what they consume; how do we engage them; how do we get them registered so we can send newsletters to them and get more content in front of them, and hopefully, eventually, get them into a paying place”.
As for the majority, Little said: “Ultimately, if we can get them into that 5% bucket and keep growing that then fantastic – that’s your pipeline for new users – we still want those people and we’ll still serve content to them.
“But we want to really put arms around the 5% of people who we know we’ve got a real affinity to with the brand.”
Other publishers have experimented with the paywall model, only to abandon it shortly afterwards. The Wolverhampton Express & Star, one of England’s biggest selling regional daily newspapers, pulled the plug on its paywall in 2012 less than a year after first putting it up.
Newsquest has deployed a premium (or freemium) paywall model across its regional daily news websites, including the Northern Echo and The Herald. Under this model most content is free to access, but that labelled “premium” requires a subscription to read, costing £4.99 a month.
An alternative to the full-scale paywall is a pay-as-you-go approach, allowing readers to simply pay per article rather than enter into a monthly agreement with a particular newsbrand.
The major proponent of the model in the UK is the start-up firm Axate, which works with 24 titles, mostly weekly newspapers, including Popbitch.
The report, published in August, said that some articles “generated a higher gross revenue via Axate payments than they would have generated through digital advertising using average industry rates”.
It concluded: “It is clear from this work that an easy-to-use payment system, and an overlapping market of paying readers, opens up the prospect of reader revenues to a far wider group of publishers than a subscription model.
“… Axate’s project shows that reducing the barriers to payment can significantly increase access to a reader revenue stream, with the potential to surpass advertising revenue relatively early.”
For Axate founder and chief executive Dominic Young, offering content for free online has steered news publishers further away from the reader, where its focus should be, chasing clicks to satisfy advertising demands.
“The internet has forced us to put consumer needs in second place,” said Young, who said he believed “some form of reader revenue is essential” for a successful online business model.
According to Young, ad-reliant models are “hostile to the consumer” because they are “trying to make money off something else”.
A reader revenue model “changes your perspective completely”, he said, moving from a “high volume, data-driven approach” towards something that is “more user focused”.
“The content that readers value most is the content that is directly relevant to them. It’s the things that aren’t all over the internet,” he said.
“So if you are no longer focused on maximising traffic to maximise ad revenue and are focused on treating the reader and getting them to form a habit to bring them back instead, you don’t need to focus on creating high volumes of stuff… [it’s] doing less better.”
Young said a subscription model, which locks the reader into a contract and asks them to make a “promise to pay for something that is not a compulsive habit”, doesn’t work for the consumer because it “creates a formality that doesn’t feel appropriate”.
Axate looks to break that down by allowing readers who sign up on one website to access its network of websites, creating a “virtuous circle”, and to pay to read as they please.
“Readers who want to have a close relationship with you are obviously going to be the most valuable and locking them in is crucial, but not at the expense of everyone else,” said Young.
“The size of an industry that advertising alone can support as a single source of revenue is small, and we have seen what Covid has done.
“It is very hard for any media brand, even big ones, to have control over [ad] pricing… if you are doing business but can’t control pricing, it’s really difficult to trade. No-one can out scale Google and Facebook when it comes to advertising.”
However, Axate still has a limited client base and, although Archant and Reach have both experimented with the alternative pay model on their local titles, it has yet to take a firm hold in the industry.
Young said the opportunity for regional newspapers “is significant” because so much of the content they produce is unique to their audience.
“If they focus more on the audience they can establish a relationship that is more symbiotic,” he said. “The focus is back on the reader which in turn feeds back on the editorial thinking.”
Free / donations
Over at Archant, every local news titles is asking readers for their support as part of a company-wide policy. “Our industry faces testing times, which is why we’re asking for your support,” reads the message on its websites.
As well as JPI Media’s Yorkshire Post, Reach’s Liverpool Echo is also asking readers to help out, but is not sealing its content behind a paywall. This model is reliant on a newsbrand’s reputation with the community. Both the Post and Echo are long-serving titles in their respective regions.
Reach would not say how many paying contributors the Echo has. The group, which is the largest newspaper publisher in the UK, has so far kept its local news content free online and has been engaged in a process of expansion, setting up regional news websites in areas not covered by its print titles as it chases scale online. It now has more than 70 news websites.
“Overall, we believe that online journalism has the greatest impact when it is free, and can reach as many people as possible,” said David Higgerson, chief audience officer at Reach.
Digital-only made up 15% of Reach’s £702.5m total revenue in 2019, with print making up more than 80%.
Reach has experimented with Axate’s micro-payments model, running a trial on the Examiner Live website which came to an end in February after less than six months. The company said it had been “encouraged” by the result and planned to trial the service elsewhere in its portfolio.
“We learnt that there were some stories which readers were more likely to pay a single payment fee to see,” said Higgerson of the trial.
“Reach is constantly seeking ways to innovate with its trusted news brands and test the ways our diverse readership is willing to view content.”
He went on: “Our recent newsroom transformation is about spending more time engaging readers in our content, so that it has a greater impact on their lives, which we believe will result in more people wanting to support our journalism directly.”
Europe and US picture
A survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2019 found that 69% of national and regional newspapers in Europe and the US operate some kind of a paid online model today, up from 64.5% in 2017.
Where they exist, paywalls are typically premium or metered (a limited number of free articles a week/month) – about a third each according to the Reuters Institute research – and rarely hard (no free access at all).
In both Germany and the US, regional daily newspapers dominate the press and fulfil the role of national newspapers in the UK, such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Boston Globe.
In Germany there is a preponderance of premium and free access models, with some metered paywalls. In the US the metered paywall is most common, with others favouring free access, the research shows.
Bavarian daily newspaper Main-Post moved from a metered paywall, offering five free articles a month, to a premium model this year.
The title employs 135 journalists across 17 local editions, with its website drawing in 174,000 monthly unique users. Managing editor Andreas Kemper told the Reuters Institute it now has 25,000 digital subscribers.
He said: “When you close all your gates, people don’t know what good content you have. I think the main challenge now is to get the people to pay for our content…”
In France, regional newspaper group Ouest-France employs 530 journalists across 53 daily local editions, and has 25m monthly unique users. It also operates a premium model, with subscriptions its main source of revenue.
Fabrice Bazard, the group’s director of digital activities, told the Reuters Institute: “We wanted to get out of the digital-for-free.
“We absolutely did not want to tell the customers: ‘Look, the digital is not worth much, and it’s free’. We really did not want this. And, moreover, the digital journalists would not have appreciated this.”
The site had 110m monthly visits in 2019, up from 20m in 2014. But Bazard said the editors had realised that “a large audience will not necessarily produce a lot of subscribers”.
A mixture of revenue streams has long been seen as the way forward for news publishers, with no one source of digital income capable of sustaining a quality news organisation alone.
But, as Covid-19 accelerates disruption, reducing revenues from print yet further, a solid digital strategy is imperative.
Reach’s free model, Archant’s contributions model, JPI Media’s paywall model and Newsquest’s premium model are all examples of ways to make online news pay. But there remains no clear or certain winner as yet.