30th May 2012

Downsizing: The State of UK Local Newspapers

This morning I appeared on BBC Radio York discussing the current state of local newspapers, especially in North Yorkshire, but also more generally in the UK context. Several longstanding local weeklies, including the Harrogate Advertiser and the Ripon Gazette (both owned by major UK media firm Johnston Press), are following the now almost universal trend, across national, regional and local print platforms, known as going tabloid. This is not to suggest a change in journalistic style but rather a change in size, from long-and-wide broadsheet to short-and-fat tabloid format. In the national context, The Guardian started the trend of moving from broadsheet to what is known as mid-size format back in 2005; and many regional UK newspapers like the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Manchester Evening News became tabloids considerably earlier.

What is the significance of this fashion for downsizing? First and foremost, to cut costs. Tabloids have less space to fill with expensive editorial content (i.e. news produced by skilled journalists!), and are cheaper to print and distribute given the reduced size and weight in comparison to broadsheets. Local newspapers (as well as other local and regional media) make little money from advertising and even less from actual sales, so efficiency savings are all the rage these days.

Second, tabloids are clearly preferred by 21st-century readers who simply don’t have the time or space to lay out a long broadsheet over the breakfast table. Even the well-off among us are usually too busy coping with the pace and stress of modern working life to afford the luxury of an hour every day reflecting on serious journalistic matter. Train commuters are a case in point: anyone who has ever tried reading a broadsheet from front to back on a busy commuter train now appreciates just how much more reader-friendly is the free Metro newspaper.

Third and perhaps most important of all, tabloids save paper and therefore trees. Any trend that is environmentally friendly is not just an ethically sound move; it’s a economically sound one too, because most consumers these days are green-conscious.

The other major issue for local titles, related to downsizing, is their very survival in today’s digital British economy. The web versions of local newspapers actually generate far more hits than sales of the print version could ever dream of achieving. But while online news generates fresh advertising revenue opportunities, several threats are posed by the web too: especially in the form of dedicated local sites catering for tourist or community interests, some of which are run by not-for-profit organisations that effectively undercut the advertising rates charged by commercial ventures.

Another emerging competitor in recent years is the local (and often free) fortnightly or monthly glossy magazine – examples in the Yorkshire area include Living and Beyond – that are often preferred by, for example, fashion advertisers wanting to promote their wares in glorious technicolour. These titles target affluent areas in North Leeds, Harrogate and parts of York because the companies that advertise in them want to tap into that middle- and upper-middle-class readership. Ads for expensive health and beauty products like Botox, for instance, will get placed in publications distributed across prosperous Harrogate or Wetherby, not Bradford or Middlesbrough.

Here lies the unfortunate fact for the future: local media, if they are to survive, will need to pander their editorial content and circulation patterns to the wealthy middle classes so as to satisfy advertisers and maximise advertising revenue. The poor working classes will also become the media poor, and this is true now of the technologically-excluded among us who cannot afford a broadband connection.

But online local news is still the key platform for success. Familiarity may breed contempt, but absence also makes the heart grow fonder, which is why many people who access local news sites these days are no longer locals; their ex-locals, often ex-pats, in this case, ex-Yorkshire men and women, living in London or overseas, who still like to keep track of what’s going on in their home towns and villages. A complicated readership in the marketing sense, yes, but potentially a more lucrative readership than has ever existed before.

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