The future of local media: it’s all about location, location, location

newspapers sortedA few weeks ago Johnstone Press, the second largest regional newspaper publisher in the UK, released its trading statement for the 18 week period to 7th May 2012. Total advertising revenues across both print and digital platforms were down 9.1%. Whilst its digital advertising revenue has been growing it has not been enough to offset the fall in print. Johnstone Press is not alone though with most of the other regional newspaper companies facing declining revenues and profits in recent years.

Regional newspaper companies have been having a hard time for a number of years now with competition coming from all directions and eating away at their core markets. Our lifestyles, the way we consume media, shop and interact with others has radically changed, largely due to new technologies. Technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are now providing consumers with all the latest content they need, delivered to any device in real-time and most importantly, it’s free.

Whilst many of these changes have been outside the control of the regional newspaper companies (who could have predicted the impact of social networking sites), they must accept a large part of the responsibility for their decline. For years the regional paper businesses couldn’t work out how to exploit the Internet and when they did try to move content online their thinking was dominated by print and concerns about damaging their main source of revenue. The results were poorly thought through websites with limited content that could not compete with the service being offered by the new market entrants. They have also been slow to react to the challenges (and opportunities) presented by social media and mobile.

So it’s no wonder that many of the main regional newspaper companies find themselves in their current predicament. It’s still not too late for them but time may well be running out for some. The title of this post very deliberately refers to local media companies and not local newspaper companies. This is not to say that local newspapers are going to disappear anytime soon just that the companies that produce them need to be more than just a print-based business. They will need to be a multi-platform, multi-channel media business to survive in the digital age.

I recently read a quote from the MD of a local newspaper business about the competition facing their business. The MD explained that they were competing with Google when someone wants to find a local plumber, the BBC for online news and eBay for buying and selling items. I think that misses the point. A local media company cannot compete with Google, eBay, etc for those services anymore. Those markets have changed beyond recognition; new players have entered and have used technology to disrupt the market to the point where the traditional players have to move on. And that is what regional media companies need to do: move on; find new markets and services where they do have an advantage and can be profitable.

And they only have to look as far as their name to find that advantage. By definition local media companies serve specific locations or geographic areas. They have people on the ground in these areas who understand local issues, interests, personalities and politics. They have local credibility and reputation as well as strong local brands. And people are still interested in what is happening around them, where they live and work. So, instead of fretting about the impact that social media networks are having on their core business, regional media companies should be actively using them to create and nurture their local communities; uniting people around location-specific issues, creating online debates, campaigns and interest groups and strengthening their local brands and reputation. All with the ultimate aim of driving traffic to the main site where it can be monetised.

This can be taken a step further with communities being encouraged to contribute content to their local site, creating rich and dynamic community-based sites. That is after all one of the strengths and attractions of Facebook and Twitter; self-created, virtual communities who contribute content that other people can consume, respond to and share with others.

Social networks are also a valuable source of data on the interests of their participants, their views on current issues and reactions to events. Listening tools, big data analysis and even just some old fashioned dedicated people can be used to monitor social networks, identifying trends and hot topics at both a local and national level. Local media companies can use this information both to shape the issues they cover and to direct their audience towards content they already have and which is related to a trending issue.

And then there’s mobile. Delivering content to people on the go and enabling them to contribute to the local conversation is just the start of how regional media companies should be using mobile. They also need to develop location based services that match content, advertising and alerts to the location of users.

It’s not too late for the local media companies but time does seem to be running out for some. Whilst technology has contributed to their problems it can also be their saviour. But the managers of the businesses have to act now and they’ll need to make some big decisions. And technology is only part of the solution; cultural transformation will be necessary to change the mind-set of these companies from being print dominated to multi-platform, multi-channel media businesses.

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