Printed media is currently facing a crisis and every PR professional knows this. Yet while national papers and magazines are still managing to eke out a decent living, the situation at local level is dire. So bad that even national papers like The Sunday Times have taken the trouble to write at length about this problem.
Instinctively many PR professionals may just shrug this matter off as either trade media or the nationals have been the favourite hunting grounds of most PR consultants while local press was of interest to specialists in sectors such as local government, utilities and so on.
However, if all local papers were to shut down tomorrow it would be a bleak day indeed for all media professionals. Let me explain. Many of the journalists who have progressed to either business or national media have cut their teeth on the local press, where they have learnt the basic skills of their trade from how to write a story, how to feature it, how to deal with other complications such as the dangers of defamation, privacy laws and so forth. So local papers play a fundamental role in the training of journalists and we, as PR professional, should greatly care about this.
Despite what some may think it’s in our own interest to support the highest professional levels of journalism. By cutting down their natural training grounds infinite harm can be done to this profession, especially as journalism is already under siege from other quarters. Indirectly we may also come to harm in the process. I know we’d all like to think that we could do away with organised media and leave it all to online channels (preferably managed by us!), but this would be as if all farmers woke up one morning deciding they could dispense with supermarkets. Despite our possible hate of large multiples we know that they have served us well in terms of accessibility and economies of scale, which is why buying produce directly from farms is still mainly a hobby. With news it would be just the same – infinite channels would just generate noise, making our job more difficult and even less rewarding.
I am not suggesting we should now all go out and start fundraising to support the local press, especially some of the really poorly put together rags. Indeed in quite a few instances the financial crisis local papers is experiencing is spurious. Some printing groups have healthy profits although funds are frequently syphoned off to offshore accounts, bypassing local investments and therefore inflating the crisis. You need to read The Journalist or log into blogs on journalism to get a true picture.
I am suggesting something more radical. Like a new vision of integrating local press with online media. Aside from a reduction in the number of readers, the greatest problem the local press faces is reduced advertising revenue, which as we know is far more lucrative than selling individual copies of a paper. The main mistake some of the local newspapers have made is that instead of creating partnerships with existing online specialists they attempted to develop their on e-channels to push jobs and property sales (their most popular sources of advertisement). As a result there are still many half baked solutions out there, which readers don’t like, shunning them for much better engineered online portals such as Zoopla, Rightmove, Monster, and so on.
If the local newspapers had instead created partnerships with these real online experts, offering printed version of the same ads at more accessible rate and as a support to online campaigning, they may have a created a lucrative two way revenue stream (let alone the potential for linking these channels through QR codes and more). Despite the changes which the advent of super fast mobile internet access will bring about, heralding a new era in communication, someone will still need to craft news, and there will still be buyers and sellers out there.
The poor integration of on and offline engagement is just one of the many wasted opportunities that local papers created for themselves. Ironically it is as if their own senior executives instead of carrying out a SWOT analysis, they simply omitted the O and focussed exclusively on W and on the T. With such defensive and unenlightened approach no wonder this sector is now in disarray.
I could go on listing market opportunities that the local press missed for longer, but I doubt many journalists (or rather their senior colleagues) ever bother to read what professionals in other communication sectors express, and certainly not PR and marketing communications consultants (plenty of scope for another blog on the love-hate relationship between the two!). Therefore we could infer that local media is just reaping the rewards of poor strategies and we may just leave it to that, writing a nice obituary and waking up one day to find they were all closed. Except that if that happened we would need to press the panic button too.