Prospects for global and national news, what about local?

Developments at leading national newspapers building their (paying) digital audience both in-country and internationally give reason for some cautious optimism concerning the future of global and national news, but it is not clear that we can learn much from the models rolled out at these papers when it comes to the important question of the future of local and regional news.

That’s one of my takeaways from a fabulous 30th Anniversary Weekend celebrating the Reuters Institute’s fellowship program for journalists from around the world. (The program’s 30th anniversary, not mine…)

In addition to a great chance to catch up with fellows and friends from around the world, the weekend provided for several interesting discussions of developments in the business of journalism around the world, with presentations by the new New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson, Natalie Nougayrede, the editor-in-chief of the French daily newspaper Le Monde, and John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Globe and Mail.

A few highlights from their presentations—

  • All of them recognized the challenges their organizations have faced and still face in a changing media environment, but all also spoke with confidence and vision about a future in which an expanded range of editorial content across more platform and a greater reliance on reader (viewer/listener/user) payment will continue to provide us with great journalism.
  • All stress their ambition to stand out from the empty calories of breaking news “churnalism” to create value for their users (in Nougayrede’s words: we need to get it first, but also get it right and get it rich). Especially Mark Thompson spoke out very strongly against the idea of “paid advertorials” or “native advertising” blurring the line between editorial and advertising.
  • All predict hybrid print-digital models for the foreseeable future—Mark Thompson said that internal modeling at the NYT suggest that print will be a key part of the company and news organization “for much longer than many people imagine”.
  • All present business models based on print sales and advertising revenues combined with digital advertising plus an increased emphasis on digital sales and an expanding range of ancillary products based on each news organization’s brand and reputation (conferences, seminars, etc).
  • All of them are heading news organizations with lower revenues today than in the 1990s, but all are also painting a picture where the coming years may look better than the dramatic declines of 2007-2012.

It was all very interesting, and many of the journalists in the audience remarked that it was refreshing to hear such confident and relatively upbeat presentations after years of doom and gloom, at least in North America and much of Europe.

Of course, all three speakers are keen to promote their vision for their respective title, and to boost their future prospects, but I thought every one of them remained mostly reality-based on their presentations and I agree that there are reasons for cautious optimism when it comes to the future of titles like especially the New York Times, but also nationally-dominant quality brands with some potential for global reach like the Le Monde (Nougayrede spoke of plans to expand the title’s presence in Francophone Africa, where some countries have a sizable and growing professional class).

But, just sticking to the case of the New York Times and Le Monde, I continue to wonder how much we can really learn from their experience when it comes to the future of other newspapers, especially local and regional newspapers and newspapers in smaller countries.

Mark Thompson quoted Chris Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky’s important caveat in their report on “Post-Industrial Journalism” from last year to the effect that every statement in discussions of the future of journalism that begins with the sentence “let’s take the New York Times as an example” ought to be discounted because the NYT’s experience really isn’t representative of anything else. It is in a set of one, and only few other titles, perhaps the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, can be compared with it in any meaningful way.

Even the step from being a leading national title (with considerable global potential) in a market of 315 million to being amongst the top titles in markets of 60 million (like France) with less global potential is huge in terms of getting to critical mass both in terms of digital advertising and digital sales. The situation in a country like my native Denmark, with a population of 5.5 million (less than New York City or Paris alone) is of course very different.

For both national papers in smaller countries and regional and local papers in bigger ones, the problem of critical mass—which is central both when it comes to digital advertising revenues and digital sales, where people often speak of aiming for a “conversation rate” of maybe 1 per cent of monthly unique visitors signing up as paying readers—is even more pressing than at titles with potential for global reach. Mark Thompson called the New York Times a relative minnow when it comes to digital advertising (volume is required both to generate revenue and to enable good behavioral targeting of advertising). He is right, of course, when comparing the Times to Google, Facebook, etc, but if the NYT is a minnow, I don’t know what the word would then be for other newspapers.

We can see the problems of reaching critical mass both in small countries like Denmark, where even the top national newspapers are in a situation quite different from that of the New York Times or even Le Monde. The New York Times can support a newsroom with more than 1,000 journalists in a country of 315 million (with an additional about ten percent of its digital subscribers from the rest of the world). Divide that by 60 to get to Danish size, and you would have a newsroom of less than 20. Even after several years of cost-cutting, the newsroom at a title like Berlingske (currently being shopped around by its debt-burdened British owners Mecom) is much, much larger than that, but it remains an open question for how long it can sustain such an investment in quality journalism.

We can also see the problem of critical mass at the hundreds of local and regional daily papers that make up the majority of the US newspaper industry, employ the majority of US journalists, and produce much of the independent coverage of public affairs. The Newark-based Star-Ledger, for example, is critical in terms of covering New Jersey’s notoriously corrupt and incestuous politics (what other Western newspaper has a section simply called “corruption”?). Based across the Hudson River from the New York Times, it is losing money even though it has a daily paid circulation larger than Le Monde or several Danish daily papers combined (over 340,000 on weekdays). And though it is growing its digital subscriber base, it is hard for the Star-Ledger to build a digital business, as many of the readers it caters to already get some local news for free via broadcast and web from local television stations etc and many get much of their national and international coverage from national sources or larger neighboring newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer (in South Jersey) and the New York Times (in North Jersey). The recent trouble at AOL’s Patch and Advance Publication’s decision to scrap AnnArbor.com suggest that online-only hyperlocal journalism is even harder to sustain on a commercial basis. The problems of rapidly eroding print revenues and very limited growth in terms of digital revenue also bedevils much of the European local and regional press (though there seems to be some exceptions such as in Finland where the regional press seems to be doing better than the national press).

So, even though the presentations by Mark Thompson and even Natalie Nougayrede from Le Monde provided some reasons for cautious optimism when it comes to the future of global and national news, I’m not sure we can learn all that much from the experience of the New York Times when it comes to newspapers in smaller national markets or when it comes to regional or local newspapers.

This problem—especially the future of local and regional news—is thus intellectually distinct from the problem of the future of national and global news, and of separate importance not only for the business of journalism, but also very much for democracy. Though news tend to focus on national politics and national issues, most of our lives are lived locally, and much of our politics and government play out locally, watched by and reported on by ever fewer journalists. That, I think, is a problem in terms of accountability and in terms of the independent sources of information available to citizens about local public affairs.

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