Digital ambition doesn’t hide bad headlines for local press

I can only imagine the reaction of former Johnson Press colleagues when absorbing recent messages from their chief executive Ashley Highfield about the future of the papers they work for.

The ambition to make local news a successful digital product has been talked about for more than a decade, but no regional publisher has yet to make money in this area. So one could be forgiven some scepticism when hearing lines about creating ‘platform neutral’ newsrooms. Mumsnet even gets a mention.

Anyone who has worked in the media in the last decade doesn’t need to be told of the changes that have hit the industry, or the need for it to adapt to them. Some were calling for more investment in content creation across all ‘platforms’ – digital and print – when times were good and the papers which sustained publishing operations were being milked dry. Now times are tough, and companies like Johnson are struggling to catch up, with a share price of 6p and squashed between the continued flight of audiences to the internet and a decline in advertising.

And when you scratch under the surface of Johnson’s Mumsnet proposal, you see its papers continue to take a battering. Five dailies are to go weekly, with my ex paper the Sheffield Star apparently ‘under threat’ (that’s news to me). My old editor Peter Charlton, who hired me at The Star is one of two to go at the Yorkshire Post and its sister title the Yorkshire Evening Post. The positions will be replaced by a single director overseeing both papers.

The hits keep on coming, with journalists increasingly churning out content for the other platforms that have been launched without a corresponding level of resource to manage them (note there is no mention by Johnson of hiring people to manage this extra work: jobs are going).

It’s depressing enough from a distance, so I dread to think what my reaction would be if I was still working in the regional press. Steve Baxter in the New Statesman sums up the situation in a recent blog post. He also makes a point that while big companies like Johnson remain years off the pace in terms of giving ‘audiences’ what they want, local journalism is changing more quickly. Too many papers have failed to do this and are dying out because they no longer give local readers news that reflects their own lives and aspirations. But local journalism, as Blake says, still could have a future:

“Some independent journalists are trying to start up small publications and websites, and some are succeeding, just as the print behemoths come crashing down around them. There will always be local news, except that soon it won’t be as attractive to invest in as it once was. Perhaps that’s best for everyone.”

Best for everyone except those who have no local news of any sort to rely on, that is.

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