The success of the Manchester Mill poses the question: Why aren’t more local news outlets in the UK adopting successful paywalls?
The Substack-based newsletter, launched two years ago, now has 1,600 paying subscribers – enough to provide gross revenue of around £130,000 a year.
The Aberdeen-based Press and Journal and its sister title The Courier have achieved one of very few other online paywall success stories in the regional press – celebrating reaching 25,000 digital subscribers in October. The Belfast Telegraph is another rare UK regional press paywall success story, with nearly 8,500 paying digital-only subscribers since launching a premium content offering in May 2020.
By contrast, most big UK local newspaper websites are focused around driving a high volume of traffic and therefore increasing advertising revenue.
MyLondon is one ad-funded local news website published by Reach which Press Gazette took a deeper look at earlier this year after former staffers expressed disquiet over the content strategy.
Its content mix is very different from a site pursuing a paywall strategy: It has a high proportion of non-local content, much of it thinly sourced write-ups of trending items on social media.
While this sort of content can drive huge audiences it is difficult to see readers paying for it when it can be found in so many other places online.
It should be noted that at its core MyLondon covers the basics of crime and councils well and it also invests in award-winning investigative journalism.
The successful formula pursued by the Press and Journal is to only cover stories that are “TRUE”: true, relevant, unique and engaging.
When you are seeking depth of engagement, rather than overall reach, publishers adopt a very different content strategy.
The problem for publishers is that only around 5% of Britons are currently prepared to pay for an online local news subscription.
Would it even be right to abandon the other 95% of the local population who don’t want to breach the paywall? Or, in the case of The Mill, the other 99.95% of the Greater Manchester population who aren’t subscribers?
And many publishers feel the existence of free high-quality local news from the BBC hinders their ability to charge for news. This is something that may accelerate as the BBC shifts resources away from local radio towards local news websites.
As former Trinity Mirror editorial director Neil Benson wrote in Press Gazette last week: “At the local level, bbc.co.uk’s content lacks the depth of most commercially-funded publishers, but it has one magic ingredient – it is free.
“In readers’ eyes, that makes it an oven-ready, good-enough substitute, should local newspapers attempt to charge for their content.”
Local newspapers are also sadly in a catch-22 situation where resources have been cut so deeply that it could be difficult to provide the depth of compelling truly local content to make a paywalled proposition unmissable for readers who want to stay in the know.
Benson presided over 40 cost-saving restructures in 16 years at Trinity Mirror (now Reach) and he admitted that it was impossible for readers not to notice.
Family-owned DC Thomson has the resources to invest enough in content to make a paywall strategy pay off. It is family owned and makes enough money from other businesses to give its media titles breathing space.
The biggest local news publisher in the UK, Reach, has a huge pension fund to service and impatient shareholders to satisfy.
For a variety of reasons paywalls look unlikely to be the saviour of the UK regional press.
But the fact that the likes of the Manchester Mill and DC Thomson are making a viable business out of quality local news is at least a ray of hope for the future.
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