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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Local news: Forget national metrics and focus on your strengths

October 17, 2019 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

Regional papers depend on building communities based on geography. But younger people prioritize interest-based communities. So, how can local and regional papers build new relationships with digital natives?

At the latest World News Media Congress in Glasgow, the publisher of The Globe and Mail Philip Crawley spoke about the unsurpassed value of an engaged local audience. He argued that—while digital engagement metrics provide invaluable data about audience funnels and propensity to convert—there are metrics that are unique to regional media they consider just as important.

He used the example of the paper’s packed obituaries pages to illustrate how a local title can measure its tangible engagement with an audience through non-digital interactions. Ultimately, Crawley made it clear that the worth of a local title cannot be measured through ones and zeroes alone.

Regional titles have long been experts in measuring engagement. These metrics might be tallying attendance at events they organize, counting submissions to the letters pages, or by less concrete metrics like the willingness of the public to interact with their journalists.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily translate to sustainability, even for publishers that have the same drive to reinvest in news products. Whether it’s due to quirks of geography, unpredictable societal differences, or for any number of reasons, local news publishers have been hurting. Investment in the print product is no guaranteed panacea either.

The key issue for many is that they have struggled to find ways in which digital products can serve as a focus for local engagement as print editions once did. Another factor is the often top-down approach from regional publishers who try to use national-level engagement metrics for their regional titles. Crucially, they largely miss those specialist ‘obituary pages’ engagement measurements that are an indication that audiences are invested in a community with a news brand at its center.

What does local engagement look like?

The race, then, is for local titles to discover what local engagement looks like in the platform age before their business models become unsustainable. To the industry’s great credit, it has been quick to launch research projects designed specifically around that.

One, the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF), was co-founded by a group that includes the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The goal of this initiative is to develop tools that measure that engagement (as opposed to the many approaches around finding funding or cost-savings).

Meanwhile, Poynter launched the Table Stakes initiative, which focuses on diversifying revenue for local newspaper, public radio, or digital news organizations. And the recently announced Project Neon is explicitly focused on finding ways to intensify audiences’ engagement with regional publisher Archant’s titles. We can look forward to seeing useful findings from these efforts in a few years’ time.

Investment in an uncertain future

Those efforts are welcome—and exactly what the industry should be doing. The unfortunate reality, however, is that while regional publishers have the expertise and history of engaging regional audiences in print, digitally they are playing catch-up. This is particularly significant given their need connect with younger audiences—and from something of a standing start.

This is not a consequence of a lack of effort in engaging audiences. In fact, there has been plenty of excellent work done to discover how young audiences interact with news digitally. However, that hasn’t always helped local publishers build engagement with young people.

For instance, Research from Flamingo on behalf of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism demonstrates that, as a result of having grown up with ready access to the internet, younger readers do not necessarily share the same values or expectations about the purpose of news:

“They still need and want news to connect their world to the world – and fulfil an array of different social and personal needs – but they don’t necessarily see the traditional media as the best or only way to do that… They don’t need to seek it out, news comes to them.” As a result, the reality of engaging young audiences is that it is much harder to build a community around a geographical rather than an interest-based niche.

The Flamingo study also found that no news app was in the top 25 most-used app in their respondents’ phones. This implies that local publishers must have a presence on social platforms to reach those young audiences on which they are increasingly going to rely.

To make matters more difficult, social platforms do not typically offer user data or tools that are of value to local publishers. (Although Facebook’s most recent endeavor in this area is reportedly better in this respect than past attempts). Local publishers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, then, trying to build communities on platforms that don’t necessarily cater to them.

In an excellent thread on Twitter, The Los Angeles Times’ engagement editor Adriana Lacy argued that publishers having a presence on even the recently-launched platforms like TikTok will eventually help with that engagement issue. However, she also notes it might take precious time – something local publishers particularly are often short of – to see any real return.

Part of the solution

Local and regional titles have always relied on creating a community out of their local readers. Efforts like comments sections on pages are useful for eyeballing the levels of community engagement, but without a print title to provide those ‘obituary metrics’, and with younger audiences increasingly finding ‘news’ content through platforms and intermediaries, regional publishers have struggled to demonstrate they have the heart and trust of a community.

One potential solution is for regional publishers to double down on what the BBC World Service Group’s head of editorial partnerships Emily Kasriel has termed ‘Solutions-focused Journalism.’ As Kasriel put it:

“Another factor driving our SFJ initiative is the desire to better serve our audiences, particularly young people. According to recent BBC Audience Research, 51% of 16-18 year olds and 47% of 19-24 year olds in the UK ‘agree or strongly agree’ that they want news to also provide solutions. The figures were even higher in the developing world: 75% of Indians, 78% of Nigerians and 82% of Kenyans of all ages want their news to provide solutions and not just problems.”

Solutions-focused journalism, centered around local areas, are potentially how publishers can marry the interest-based communities of the internet to the local areas they cover. Here, they can happily use those platforms on which they have established themselves as both a place for discussion and to provide calls for action around those proactive, solutions-based causes they are championing. The UK’s Pink News, though an interest-based title, grew to be the largest LGBTQ+ publisher in the world as a result of its campaigning journalism, for instance.

In the city of Hull in the UK, that focus on providing solutions journalism appears to be bearing fruit for one regional digital publisher, for instance. Journalism.co.uk reports: “Constructive journalism project Hull Is This launched in November 2018 with early promise, reaching 37k hits in its debut month and 45k in January 2019. While page views alone are not always the best metric for measuring the success of editorial content, it does at least suggest demand for local, positive stories.”

Similarly, the Yorkshire Post’s high levels of trust in the community have been attributed in part to its campaigning journalism around loneliness in the region.

So, while there may not be a direct digital successor to the ‘obituary metrics’ that demonstrated there was a community around local print titles quite yet, it isn’t to say that it is impossible to recreate those communities in the age of platforms. Instead, it could be that regional publishers will find a new path by shifting from being passive but present in the community to a much more pro-active and campaigning force around which a new, younger community will form.

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