Regional newspapers are struggling, undergoing long-term falls in both circulation and advertising expenditure, and increased competition from the internet, national newspapers – and the BBC.
In 2004, regionals’ share of ad expenditure stood at £3.1bn; by 2006 this had fallen to £2.78bn of the estimated £19bn UK media market. Its traditional key revenue drivers of motoring, recruitment, and property classifieds are being hit by the growth of the internet, and more specifically search. While property has not yet transitioned to the Net to the same extent, financially the online migration of classifieds will have a massive impact if regional publishers do not get online formulae right.
And online is exactly where much of the action appears to be playing out this year. Trinity Mirror’s Birmingham Post recently launched its new standalone website and the Glasgow Evening Times this month announced it would launch up to 80 community websites. Many of the regional papers appear to be taking what they refer to as a “hyper local” approach to their online offerings.
But some industry observers are still waiting to see if there will be enough demand for so much local content. Some believe the growing number of niche media offerings mean specialist websites or publications can often provide people with, for example, an alternative source to get the scores for a match with their local sporting team.
And the regionals face another potential threat in the form of publicly-funded body, the BBC. It is proposing to launch a slew of hyper-local websites of its own. If the BBC is successful in its push to do so, there is little doubt in industry minds that it will deliver a potentially lethal blow to regional publishers.
The regional market’s poster boy right now is the GMG Regional Media-owned Manchester Evening news, with its hybrid paid-for and free model introduced in May 2006.
The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the year to December 2007, has seen it record 81,326 in paid-for copies. Its free copies totalled 98,455, giving the paper an overall reach of 179,781.
But, while it can confidently say its reach has extended further than ever before, its paid-for circulation fell by a worrying 13.5%. PHD North media buyer David Newton points to the positives: “The free model has made it possible to increase its circulation among a new affluent, young, AB audience, which is enticing for advertisers.”
Yet while more newspapers are taking the hybrid approach, there is no consensus over whether it is the model of the future, with many believing it more suited to the major cities.
Edward Lucas, communications planner at the Arena BLM regional arm BLM Clilverd, says the industry is going through an “identity crisis”, transitioning between print and online.
But far from the picture of doom and gloom painted by some, he does not believe that regional press is becoming irrelevant. “People still engage with their local communities,” he says. “That hasn’t changed. But the format of how regional media is being consumed is changing. People may access local information through print – paid-for or free, and some may be turning online. They can compete with other niche offerings if the quality is good enough.”
Such an argument is also applicable to online classifieds, which Lucas believes presents the bigger short-term threat to regional media. “If you want to buy a car you want to go to the site with the most choice. If sites like [Northcliffe Media’s] motors.co.uk can compete with Autotrader on the amount of stock they have, then they can remain competitive,” says Lucas.
The Newspaper Society communications director Lynne Anderson points out that regional press sites are finally starting to erode share from the online recruitment specialists such as Monster.co.uk. According to the Advertising Association, between 2006 and 2007, regional press sites’ share of total online recruitment grew from 26% to 28%; national press sites’ share grew from 6% to 7%, while online recruitment specialists share dropped from 68% to 65%.
Yet some question whether the relatively slow growth among the regionals means they will be able to play catch-up. Anderson admits the sector faces constant competition from other media outlets wanting a slice of local markets.
She says: “It’s meant that regional publishers have had to innovate like crazy and plough investment into these new, top quality platforms.”
The Newspaper Society is also working on a new system with ABC Electronic and local press agency, Jicreg, to bring together print and online audience figures of regional newspapers and their websites, providing advertisers with a better idea of their combined reach across the two media platforms.
In Manchester, GMG Regional Media has launched thejobsmine.co.uk, supported by advertising across print, TV and online. A spokeswoman says early signs for the service are promising, with the site “now topping the local visit list in Greater Manchester”.
But Newton says a “wait and see” approach must be taken in terms of whether the slew of new local websites will be sustainable in the longer term. He says regional publishers have been “behind the pace in terms of the growth of online and embracing its opportunities”.
The most recent Newspaper Society Annual Regional Press survey reveals that online makes up just 2.5%, or £72m of ad revenue for regional press. Media buyers caution that if regional press is to remain relevant, it will need to pick up the pace from a jog to an all-out online sprint.
Manchester Evening News is considered by many the golden child of the regional press. Since it changed its distribution strategy to a hybrid paid-for and free model in May 2006, it has claimed success, not least because it says display ad revenue rose by 8% in the first year the strategy was introduced.
The Guardian Media Group-owned paper is distributed free in the city centre, but sold in the suburbs. According to the latest ABCs figures in the six months to December 2007, it recorded a 13.5% fall to 81,326 in paid-for copies. Its free copies totalled 98,455,
giving the paper an overall reach of 179,781. While it experienced a fall in copy sales, press buyers say it has been successful in extending its reach and accessing young, AB readers.
Other papers that have also adopted a hybrid paid/free model include Trinity Mirror-owned Liverpool Daily Post, GMG’s Reading Evening Post and the Archant-owned The Dartford and Swanley Times.
A GMG Regional Media spokeswoman says: “For us it has grown audiences in a largely new demographic and this has been an extremely powerful message to be able to give to our advertisers.”