Growing up in Knutsford, UK, I used to go out to buy my local newspaper every week. I was proud to see my name next to my weekly match report for my hockey team and walked home with my Knutsford Guardian copy like a badge of honour. Each time I return home, I’m amazed how the paper I once used to enjoy resembles an advertising catalogue more than my local community guide. Couple this with the difficulties facing local print distribution and it is clear that local news has changed its’ print face. With people trusting local news more than national news, what are the new faces of local news and what roles do publishers play?
Are Facebook Groups the new local news?
A June 2022 study in the UK from the Charitable Journalism Project titled News Deserts found that local Facebook Groups have overtaken local newspapers as the default source of information in many British towns. Reasons cited for this include providing more up-to-date information and the best method of communicating with, and organising in, communities. The story of the British town Trowbridge, Wiltshire is particularly interesting.
In a town of over 45,000, local Facebook Group, Spotted in Trowbridge, has over 30,000 followers. This figure is significantly more than the 4354 circulation of the local Wiltshire Times. This circulation was impacted by the closure of the Wiltshire Times office in Trowbridge. The team merged with other local papers in an office out of town. Moving local newspapers out of their communities has directly caused trust to drop. The impact must not be underestimated.
In the US we see almost the same trend of people turning to social media for news. 13% of Americans turn to social media for their local news. This is just 1% less than the 14% who turn to their local newspapers.
Facebook groups have also received negative feedback. The News Deserts Study found that certain people believed these groups are often seen as “toxic” and “racist”. They were also described as hubs of misinformation through rumour spreading, creating arguments and wider social divisions.
Some publishers however have tried to facilitate and leverage this trend. In our research report on habit forming news products, German publisher Südkurier explained how they adopted this method. By creating Facebook groups for readers to discuss local concerns, subscribers could engage with others to discuss developments in the town or other local concerns such as bad roads in the area. It has resulted in a more engaged community and a habitual nature of consuming local news.
Whilst their unregulated nature is a threat, local Facebook Groups are becoming central to local news and communities.
Newsletters being used to fill a daily gap
Newsletters are a growing news consumption tool, especially for local news. As Johannes Niemalainen discussed in our recent webinar, Mediatalo Keskisuomalainen send over 250,000 personalised newsletters a week across 10 different local communities in Central Finland. With these communities often being remote, these newsletters have become a vital source of news.
There has also been a rise of non-traditional publishers joining the craze. But one of the most outstanding examples of success comes from the US. 6AM City was launched to give people a newsletter about their city at 6am every day. Starting out in 2016 in Greenville South Carolina, the news outlet has expanded to over 20 cities with over 2 million readers.
This rapid growth has been courtesy of 6AM City rarely covering politics and crime, but instead touching on topics which make people feel good and engaged with their local community like lifestyle, events and city history. With just over 1 million subscribers, the model has clearly found success. In the UK, we have seen well documented success stories like The Mill in Manchester and Sheffield Tribune.
In the mainstream publishing world, Reach PLC aim to join this local success with their Google-funded “Email Innovation Lab”. Attempting to build upon Reach’s audience relationships, their local newsletters will provide subscribers with information on local news like events in their local councils and court cases. Whether they prove to be as successful as some of their websites remains to be seen.
ePapers remain a popular beacon of local news
The ePaper remains a regional institution for many. It offers a new lease of life to the traditional news format in local communities. In a time of digitalisation, the ePaper is a great equivalent to print. In Germany, 86% of people are interested in digital content from their own region, with 92% seeing their local ePaper as a fixture in their region. This is because 84% believe that this local ePaper news is credible, with 77% seeing their ePaper as an effective regional mouthpiece. 82% therefore feel comprehensively informed after reading their local ePaper.
This strong interest is seen because people tend to feel connected with where they live, and where they grew up. At the Digital Growth Summit, Daniel Daum, CDO at Rheinische Post highlighted people value the different perspectives on issues between local areas. This explains why 73% are also interested in news from other regions.
At Twipe, we have also seen growth of ePaper users from local publishers on our platforms. French publisher Ouest-France remains the largest daily publisher in France, with a paying audience of 629,215 at the end of 2021. Ouest-France’s local ePapers and their standout digital publication L’Édition du soir receive over 10 million monthly readers.
News sites receive increased traffic, but can they create relationships?
Over the course of 2020, traffic to local UK news websites surged, with a 44% jump compared to 2019 levels. Publishers therefore moved to leverage this. Independent UK publisher Tindle Newspapers chose to undergo a redesign of their 37 local news titles. By relaunching their websites with new templates, the publisher has been able to enhance their existing features. These include a local “What’s On”, entertainment and leisure sections. The move is designed to boost retention and give editorial teams more modern ways of presenting content.
Here in Belgium, local news outlet The Brussels Times recently moved behind a metred paywall model to monetise their success. The publisher has leveraged the power of competition to kick off their paywall campaign. One reader from their first 5000 subscribers will win a Tesla in their reader draw in December 2022. The publisher adopted a soft paywall so that access to news was still available to those who don’t pay. Instead, subscribers receiving exclusive content like the Secrets of Belgium series and weekly Q&A’s with local Belgian politicians. The model is also set at an affordable limit driven by a belief that journalism must remain accessible. The success of the switch to a digital paywall is one we will monitor closely.
Recent research from the Press Gazette found that just 36% of local news sites receive their traffic from their main local area. In fact, just 8 of these local news sites drew at least half of their UK audience from the region in which the title is based. Whilst traffic to local news websites is thriving, is there potential to build relationships with these visitors? Are people drawn in by enticing titles on social media and SEO, or are people really (like me with the Manchester Evening News) coming to get a taste of home?
Local news has a changing face but publishers have a place in this shift in all formats. The key challenge that local publishers face is continuing to build relationships with their local communities across these new platforms. This challenge is central to future survival.