The digital transition of local news

How are the traditional local publishers managing the transition to digital? The panelists would like us to think it's going well, but the audience is skeptical.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Liveblogged notes from a panel discussion on the future of local news publishers at News Impact Summit Cardiff in October 2018. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax.


  • Moderator: Joy Jenkins, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
  • MaryAnn Astle, executive editor (digital), StokeonTrentLive
  • Ian Carter, editorial director, Kent Messenger Media Group
  • Paul Fisher, Head of audience for south of England, Johnston Press

Astle: Getting lots of traffic is easy - but we want loyal, local traffic and that is only doable the hard way - by doing the issues they care about.

Carter: We have a bigger audience than we ever did before - but we’re still facing declining revenue. I believe that people have to pay for content now.

Fisher: We have got very used to expecting our news free of charge - Britain is uniquely different in that, probably because of the BBC. The 24/7 nature of news is both a challenge and an opportunity. People expect 24/7 news - how do we resource that?

Astle: Reach plc has scale - and from a commercial perspective, a very large audience helps sell advertising. As journalists, you have an awful lot of colleagues across the country to talk to, work with and you can call upon central resources.

Carter: We’re going the other way - town centre offices, and investment in local and the community.

Fisher: JP is a little of a mix of both - everything from a long tail of small regional titles, right up to the i, which is seeing growth in print and online. We have the ability to amplify our content from our local sites via the i. We have daily conversations about that. We have central content teams and central video teams. We’re aiming to be a on-stop shop: come for the local news and get the national news, too.

Stories and Skills

Jenkins: How have your editorial strategies changed?

Astle: It doesn’t make sense any more for every site to cover every story. Take the royal baby for example; it’s better to have that created centrally and spread to all the tiles. We haven’t changed the type of stories we do - just the tools we do them with.

Carter: Similar - we tell the same sorts of stories, but in a platform neutral way.

Fisher: I disagree. The way we do content has changed massively. We used to get the paper to bed, and then upload the paper online, in one fell swoop. No through about it. The top story was the one you uploaded last. We’ve come an awful long way since then. One of the challenges is keeping up with the pace of change in skills and tools. Is that headline SEO optimised? What links should we include? It’s a real challenge still to make sure that all our journalists are on a digital transformation journey.

Carter: But it’s still getting the exclusives; it’s still about getting the stories.

Astle: The need for training is pretty constant. Because the industry is changing so much, the need for training is constant. Now we’re a newspaper and a news site. If you want to be a print journalist, go and be a print journalist. If you’re excited about digital tools, go and work on digital.

Carter: Make it fun - give people ownership and let them experiment.

Fisher: One key is explaining why we’re doing things, rather than just adding to their workload.

The Platform Game

Jenkins: How are you feeling about Facebook and other social platforms? How important are they to your businesses?

Astle: I think it’s a bit daft to forget about Facebook - it generates millions of page views a month for us. It’s not nonsense, it’s not any old stuff - it’s what they want to read. And 90% of our tipoffs come via Facebook Messages. We have several Facebook Groups now, some are new - but people are already arranging face to face meetings.

Carter: Facebook, we get a large audience from it, but they’re amongst the least engaged. The bounce rate is high.

Fisher: Google is now our top referrer, not Facebook for the first time - and much of that is to Instant Articles, which are less valuable to us. It is useful for photos and tips.

Astle: The 18-30 segment of our audience is growing, which is good. You have to listen to them telling you what they want to know about. We do a lot of events - this year we’re going to organise Christmas ourselves. We’re going to organise an event run by journalists for thousands of people. We have to be part of the community.

Carter: We do. We need to have a presence in the heart of the community. we need to take part in local events. And we’re not constrained by newspaper footprints, s we can explore new things: park runners, eco-friendly Kent and so on.

Fisher: Newsrooms aren’t just about journalists, it’s about data analysts, who can help us understand who our readers actually are.

Do they have a duty of care to smaller titles?

Fisher: No. I would like to think Edinburgh is still a hyperlocal newsroom, and we have a lot of good journalists in that newsroom who are passionate about reporting on that city. With a cold hard-hearted business head, there are only so much audience out there - and I’d rather that focused on themselves not a competitor.

Astle argues that the small newspapers being integrated into a bigger site leads to better service for this areas.

Ideas of revenue didn't go much beyond advertising and advertising-related models. Are we too late for paywalls? Astle suggests we might be - we should have done that collectively as an industry 10 years ago.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.