Eleven of the 13 local news websites being closed by Reach before the end of 2023 saw double-digit percentage drops in audience in the past year.
Of the remaining two, one grew by 42% while the final website saw no change in its audience between October 2022 and 2023.
Reach announced at the start of November that it planned to cut 450 jobs, including 320 in editorial, and close a number of its smaller regional Live branded websites.
Those sites were revealed last week to include five of the seven Live brands launched in 2021 as part of Reach’s drive to cover every county in England and Wales in print or online. They are the websites for Dorset, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Wiltshire.
The rest started publishing in 2015 (Berkshire Live, initially as Get Reading before a 2018 rebrand), August 2018 (Staffordshire), spring/summer 2020 (Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire, Sussex) and January 2021 (Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire).
Press Gazette analysis of Ipsos iris data shows that the sites make up all nine of the smallest regional news websites by audience size at Reach, while all 13 are within its bottom 18 by size in the UK and Ireland.
All nine had adopted a “newsletter-led approach” within the past year, the only Reach sites to do so – although others have since begun to launch paid-for newsletters based around some of their biggest personalities and topics. This approach meant the sites were trying out an “engagement-first model” that meant their websites were not their primary means of publishing.
All of the websites except Dorset Live, Staffordshire Live and Wiltshire Live informed readers on Thursday they will “no longer be updating this website” from this Thursday 30 November. The other three have not yet confirmed their closure date.
The template article that has been leading each site’s homepage for days states that they launched “with the aim of creating fresh and original journalism that would appeal to audiences in the county” and they “believe we have done that and are really proud” of the site.
“However, it is no secret that changes in the media landscape and decisions made by large tech platforms have made life much harder for all media businesses,” the messages say.
“As you can probably appreciate this has been a very difficult time for our staff… We wanted to share this news with our readers because we are hugely grateful for all the feedback and support we have received since launch.”
Consumer news publishers in both the UK and USA have reported declining audience and ad revenue over the last year. Audience decline has apparently been fuelled by changes at Google and Facebook. Display advertising for publishers is down, despite overall market growth, with most of the new money going to tech platforms.
Herts Live also tells people its paid-for print newspaper the Hertfordshire Mercury will continue to be published, while it and Northants Live say that stories from BBC-funded local democracy reporters covering their counties will continue to appear but on another website, although where exactly has not yet been confirmed.
Audience down at three-quarters of Reach local websites in past year
Press Gazette analysis of industry standard Ipsos iris data showing the audience to Reach’s regional news websites between October 2022 and October 2023 found that 74% or 37 of the 50 brands included in our dataset (which excludes nationwide brands like the Daily Record and Wales Online) lost some of their audience in the past year.
Buckinghamshire Live is the smallest of the sites, with an audience of 58,000 last month down 23% year-on-year. Staffordshire Live (178,000), Wiltshire Live (117,000) and Northants Live (137,000) all fell by more than 60%.
Norfolk Live stayed steady on 110,000 while Hampshire Live (up 42% to 727,000) and Oxfordshire Live (up 19% to 136,000) saw growth in the past year.
Across all Reach websites (including national brands like the Mirror and Express), audience was down 5% over the past year to 36.6 million. Reach is the sixth biggest online organisation in the UK by audience reach, and the biggest commercial news publisher. And some local brands have nonetheless seen significant growth in the past year, with Bristol Live the third-biggest growing UK news website in October.
But in the first nine months of the year, digital revenue at Reach fell by 15% year-on-year contributing to a 7% drop overall. It blamed in part "the well-publicised declining digital referral volumes, in particular from Facebook’s de-prioritisation of news". This is why, chief executive Jim Mullen told staff this month, cost savings are needed.
No news deserts created by Reach closures
Despite Reach closing its news sites for 27% of England's counties, no total news deserts will be created.
The newer sites were created in areas where at least one of its main regional rivals Newsquest (including the former Archant titles) or National World (including Midland News Association which it bought in September) already had a strong presence.
The cutbacks are also affecting some sport coverage, including for football teams covered by other publishers.
For example, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday are both covered by National World's Sheffield Star and Huddersfield Town by the Yorkshire Post, and reporters for all three at Yorkshire Live and their respective newspapers have announced they are being made redundant.
Women's football coverage is also being scaled back, just over a year after launching a dedicated team in the wake of England's success at the Euros.
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