Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sunday Essay - Can the New England media survive? Yes, but only if it changes

The visit to Armidale gave me another chance to catch up on media changes, especially in my little local pond. I have written quite a bit about the changing media landscape. Think of this post as a further catch-up, one focused especially but not exclusively on the regional press.

We can summarise some of the changes in this way:
  • A progressive reduction in content in the print editions. 
  • An increased focus on the on-line editions
  • Increased use of content across mastheads
  • Increased use of podcasts and videos
  • Fewer long pieces, more short pieces, to fit the internet format.. 
Some of these changes are actually very good:
  • The use of audiovisual material including live broadcasts. The New Zealand Herald is a leader in this area, but all the New England press is doing it too. This means that the papers compete with TV in particular. 
  • While the increased use of shared content reduces the original content, it does allow the appointment of specialist reporters linked to one paper but providing content to several. The very recent appointment of  Nicholas.Fuller as the arts and culture reporter for the Armidale Express is an example. This is a completely new role. 
I am very conscious of all these changes, partly because I am a columnist with the Express, partly because I follow so many media outlets.

Let's start our discussion with the print editions of the papers. Under the traditional business model, the number of  pages is directly related to the volume of advertising. As advertising shrinks, so do the pages including news content. As the news content reduces with reduced paper size, the incentive to buy the paper falls. "I don't buy the Express" has been a popular if increasing call for a long time; "there is nothing in it." As print circulation declines, the scope for advertising supplements that used to be so profitable for the Rural Press group also declines.

Circulation declines are associated with reduced distribution. The paper becomes less available. It is many years since I saw a copy in the motels I stay in when visiting Armidale. The Express experience is not unique. The Melbourne Age, for example, has become very thin.

My column is included in the Express Extra published on a Wednesday with a claimed circulation of 18,000. It is delivered through Armidale and Uralla and inserted into the paid papers in Walcha and Guyra. "The content", Fairfax suggests, "is a mixture of hard and soft news stories, mostly feature style stories which don’t date, and interesting columnists." We columnists are indeed interesting! Actually, we are not bad.

Walking around Armidale, I haven't checked Uralla, the Extra appears to have become less readily available. Again, I haven't seen it in the motels.There does not appear to be a strong distribution focus even though it's free.

I know that people do still read the Express and especially the Extra.My columns appeal to a particular demographic, older locals. The 45 or so locals that I drew to my last talk all read the print edition of the Extra. That's why they came. They do not read the on-line edition.

And yet in terms of penetration, the Express is not pulling in the way it did.

There is an interesting test here. I have been writing for the paper for many years, week in, week out. Yet when I book into accommodation in Armidale nobody knows who I am! There is no name recognition. When I say that I write the column, I find that no-one reads the paper. I must admit to a mild feeling of pique!

While the decline in the circulation of print editions is a common pattern, it's not universal. The decline for some papers is slower, while a small number are actually increasing circulation. Those who are doing better have a clear focus on their market and on circulation. They have not given up!

Under former editors, my columns were not on-line. I was mildly miffed and asked the previous editor Lydia Roberts about that. She explained that she was concerned that if it was on-line it might affect the circulation of the Extra.That was flattering, of course, but also reflected the fact that a small number of people do actually collect the Extra just to read my column.

Editors change and my columns are now on-line. My print deadline is the Thursday for publication the following Wednesday. In fact, depending on available content, it now sometimes appears in the on-line edition of the paper on the Friday. Further, and again depending on available content, it may also be run in the on-line editions of other Fairfax Northern Tablelands papers and, it appears, other sometimes surprising mastheads as well. Sometimes it appears in those papers on-line but only the Extra print edition so far as the Express is concerned.  I do not object to this, but it raises a key question about marketing targeting.

I said earlier that I follow multiple media outlets. This includes all the Fairfax papers on the Tablelands as well as other papers such as the metro media. I have become very conscious of the extent to which they run common content and then tell me via twitter. At least two issues arise:
  • For the life of me, I can't see why they should uncritically run other other Fairfax press stuff such as the Canberra Times pieces on the shift of APVMA to Armidale that actually work against the area they  serve. Note I said uncritically. I really mean without thought. 
  • The commonality at least of on-line content blurs the distinctive nature of each paper. I think the papers (and this includes the metros) have lost sight of their market places and the communities they serve. They have lost the ability to differentiate. 
Let me try to illustrate. My focus is on the local press and especially the Express as a case study.

The first market served is those that live in the paper's catchment area. There are three channels here.

The first is the print edition. I have already indicated that I feel that the papers have lost sight of this channel. There is a real issue here that I have alluded to for papers serving an older demographic who are the most dedicated followers but who do not read on-line. One correspondent who was organising an event that spanned areas, put the problem this way. The only way I can get to older people interested in this event (a major family reunion) is through the print papers, but it's hard to get the papers to run stories. The apparent problem is that as the print editions shrink in size the amount of content that can be carried shrinks too, creating a rationing effect.    

The second channel is the e-editions, the subscriptions to the on-line version of the print paper in pdf  form. I get the Express in this form and it doesn't always work very well. .That is partly because I have an old box that doesn't always load. But it's also that I find the print edition more satisfying. In terms of the local market, each subscription to the e-edition substitutes for a print sale. However, the advertisements still reach the same audience. .

The third channel, really channels, is the paper websites and associated social media presences. This is the area of most dramatic change, but one where the papers have yet to work out how to monetise properly in part because of lack of clarity over audience and role. .

The main changes can be summarised this way:
  • With exceptions such as the Northern Daily Leader,  the print papers are generally bi weekly or weekly. However, in their internet editions many have effectively moved towards daily publications with constant updating of the websites.  
  • The sharing of content between websites is part of this. The structure of the websites now mimics the bigger papers, but for people like me who monitor a number of the papers the shared content is very obvious
  • The websites now carry more varied content including podcasts, video material and live broadcasts, material that cannot be provided through the print editions
  • In addition the websites, the papers also have Twtter, Facebook and, although this is poorly developed, YouTube channels. Again using the Armidale Express as an example, it has 2,417 followers on Twitters 8,246 followers on Facebook. 
  • It also has multipliers, reporters and columnists who have their own handles and sometimes Facebook pages. For example, in my case I post links to my columns on Twitter (264 followers), my public Facebook page (118 followers) and the Armidale Families Past and Present Facebook group (2060 members). Some of those tweets, posts get shared. 
  • The multiplier effects are quite considerable, Allowing for duplication between groups through shared membership, my rough estimate is that I reach at least 2,000 people each week who would not otherwise see the column. That's well over 10% of the print edition of the Armidale Express Extra. Not all read the column, but I think a fair number do.    .     . 
I now want to introduce a new variable, newspaper structure. When Rural Press took over the Tablelands and Slopes media, it broke up the previous linkages between local newspapers. It's solution to maiximising broader reach was via advertising supplements and multi-paper publications such as the extras. When Fairfax merged with Rural Press, it atomised the individual papers, reducing them to local markets. The broader unity was lost. Now economics dictates shared resources. Suddenly, the various Northern Tablelands/Slopes papers are again a broader entity, more so in fact. This opens new commercial possibilities that have yet to be realised. However, those possibilities can only be realised if they focus more on their markets, channels and advertisers.  .    .

Dealing with markets first.

The first market place is obviously the local, the traditional marketplace. However, each paper has a broader audience, those connected with the community who live beyond. Let me take the Armidale Express again as an example.For every person living in Armidale, there are at least five ex-Armidale people living elsewhere who are interested in the city. Some might be paid to subscribe to the print or e-edition. More would, in fact do, access a web site. They represent a largely untouched market.

Now for channels. Each channel is a marketplace in its own right. It needs a differentiated approach to determine just what the commercial value is. I don't think that happens at present.

There also needs to be a targeted approach to advertisers based around audience and channel. For example, if you are a local chain store, you really need the print edition. That is not necessarily true if you are a government agency who wants to get across a general information message. However, you might want to run or be persuaded to run an advertisement across a number of local mastheads in print and on-line or even just on-line. How might you do this?

Because each paper has its own market, because there is a regional market as well, there needs to be an integrated sales and marketing strategy. This seems to be impossible because so much is centralised across Fairfax, across Australian Community Media as a central platform. There is limited local or regional. . .

I am out of the time that I can spend on this post and will come back to this area later. Meantime, a small test for you. Say you want to run a small add on the Armidale Express on the web site about the 150th celebration of something. You can reach the local audience via the paper, but want to get to the broader expat audience. How might you do this?

Or say you are a Government agency who would like to run an ad on consultation for a regional development plan. You will put an ad in the print edition plus a story, but you want to run an ad on-line on six web sites. How might you do this? Note, by the way, that there appear to be no Government ads at all on the on-line sites.

I will extend this discussion later. For the moment, I leave you with the challenges.


Earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald introduced a new website.This has now extended to the Canberra Times.  Grant Newton in Welcome to The Canberra Times' new website provides the rationale for the changes.

I didn't like the SMH changes, but didn't know whether or not I was just being old-fashioned. I found the new website a bit clunky, slowing down my ability to find what I liked. My use of the site has dropped by more than half. The initial comments to the changes on the CT web site suggest that I am not alone. Because the changes are partially geared to mobile readers, I checked on my mobile. I'm not sure that it's an improvement.

My biggest problem is that I cannot see how they will monetise the sites beyond following down the paywall route.  A second problem is that a staff response in comments on the CT story suggests that they are going to roll them out out to all the Fairfax sites. If this is done as a universal without local and regional commercial models in place, then I think that it will destroy the chances of commercial viability for the New England media.  

Postscript 2 8 May 2018

Now that we have had a bit of experience with new SMH website, I realised that while I still visit to some degree, I no longer read it properly. It's too much like hard work, takes me too long to identify what I am interested in, there is too much visual crap. I am just one person and not a member of the demographic they are aiming for. Would be interested to know what other people think.


Anonymous said...

This is a very thoughtful piece Jim - my thanks.

Some of the problems recognised in your comments are, I submit more associated with country Australia than city. There is more sense of community in country, and less transient population, making for a marketplace based on a relatively static consumer base - in my innocent opinion. There are other problems of country/rural which also don't readily translate/apply to city folk - and I'm going to move to another of those that I have been following, somewhat wistfully: dairy co-ops.

Here's the latest post from a blog I follow quite closely:

- and to tie it back to your comments on newspapers, this is a blog I have come to trust more completely than the reportage to be found on the same subject in either metro or even rural press outlets. I think this is partly due to the "interests" represented by Marian compared to the "interests" of the media outlets. Agree?

But carry Marian's concerns one step further, and you can get back to a wider subject of direct and current concern: AMP Society and how it appears to have "lost its way" as revealed by the Banking Royal Commission.

Here's Marian's linked piece on co-operatives generally:

- which, I believe could as well be used as a base descriptor of our "mutuals" of the finance and banking world, because it raises the very same problem at the heart of it: the rise of a "managerial class" with objectives not completely connected to the business of its prime customers/owners.

I'd be interested to see if you can see the same connections that I can observe in the above?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvdand thanks. I am going to deal with your newspaper comment here but bring the rest up as a forum post. You wrote:

"Some of the problems recognised in your comments are, I submit more associated with country Australia than city. There is more sense of community in country, and less transient population, making for a marketplace based on a relatively static consumer base - in my innocent opinion. There are other problems of country/rural which also don't readily translate/apply to city folk - and I'm going to move to another of those that I have been following, somewhat wistfully: dairy co-ops."

I agree that issues and opportunities are different in the country. My feeling is that country papers broadly defined to include their various channels have a greater chance of viability than the city papers so long as universal company wide models are not applied.

You may have seen that the Canberra Times has now followed the SMH into the new web format, something that I feel to be a grave error. I will add a postscript to the post on this one. For the life of me, I cannot see how that format can be monetised.

All the city dailys contain a mix of general and more local news.The general news area has become incredibly crowded. The more local news has not expanded.

While my market perceptions are a little different from yours, the country papers remain the only source of certain types of information at both local and regional levels. While ABC radio in particular plus some of the programming on local commercial radio does fill this gap to some degree, it remains something of a protected market. However, with the atomisation of the papers that took place under Rural Press and then extended under Fairfax they have lost relevance.

I will wait to see if I get further comments on this post before extending the argument.

Anonymous said...

SMH has stiffened its paywall and I assume CT will soon.

I don't read papers on my phone and I find the new sites inferior.

I expect I am going to manage to do without rather than cough up to pierce the paywall.

Which is short-sighted of me but just the fact.

One day there will be no "independent" press and our society will be the worse for it. We will be at the mercy of loss-leaders run by moguls (well, one mogul in particular) who have their own agenda in pursuing influence as leverage for their state-awarded concessions.

Jim Belshaw said...

I still read the AFR and the Oz from time to time, although the prices are not insignificant when on a tight budget. The drop in the content in the AFR as compared to the Oz is a problem.

You may be right on paywalls. That would really rock the CT numbers though since many are going there instead of the SMH now, inflating readership figures. I do read news on the mobile, but only when I'm travelling.

The model I was sketching out for the New England regional media was an advertising based model but was based on detailed market segmentation. I have just spent an hour digging through the on-line (v mobile version) of the Canberra Times web site looking at the ads and I can't see any effective segmentation or targeting so far as the ads are concerned.

I am curious on this, but I'm out of time tonight. Tomorrow!

2 tanners said...

I am beginning to seriously wonder if the new CT format is a machiavellian scheme to drive people back to the paper format. I can see at least 10 problems with this proposition, starting with feasibility, but for the life of me can't figure out another motive.

With the possible exception of sheer incompetence. Which doesn't happen in Canberra, or Sydney or Melbourne.

Anonymous said...

"sheer incompetence" implies some sort of (close to) perfection.

I don't see that :)


Anonymous said...

Ha! I see David Thodey is appointed to review the Comm PS :)

Years ago, I had cause to email both him and Catherine Livingstone (then Telstra chair) regarding a point of absolute frustration with my (very) small retirement business. The email began "I expect you don't have time to deal directly with this - but then, neither do I".

Ms Livingstone's personal secretary rang me the next day, and detailed a very polite member of "Ms Livingstone's work group" to attend to my complaint, then left her direct line "in case I wasn't satisfied". It took a month, but was ever so politely resolved satisfactorily.

Never heard from Thodey. Good luck with that review, PS :)


Anonymous said...

Whoops - wrong thread. Sh be on the latest post about "modern management".



Jim Belshaw said...

That's fine, kvd. I shall copy it there and respond there!

Jim Belshaw said...

2t wrote: "With the possible exception of sheer incompetence. Which doesn't happen in Canberra, or Sydney or Melbourne." :) Of course not. Unless it is, to pick up kvd's point, incompetence brought to a level of perfection?

Anonymous said...

Agree with your latest "update re SMH" point Jim.

But I think it's probably old fogey's disease: the "never mind the bell's and whistles; what's your actual point?" attitude.

Unfortunately, I'm quite sure I can remember my father saying the exact same thing, some 50 years ago :)


Anonymous said...

The point about media generally which I really do feel sad about, is the need to 'consume' both partisan right and partisan left, in order to somehow get a 'balanced' view of what's happening around me, far outside my personal control.

How absolutely crazy is that?

(and that is even after avoiding all things Trump, where the insanity on both sides is in full view: I have come to despise the blatant hypocrisy of the Left, and the inanity (rhymes with Hannity) of the Right)

Both 'sides' insult my intelligence; supporters of either 'side' need to start thinking more for themselves.

I believe that is a sad state of affairs - and I honestly believe we, previously, were served somewhat better. Maybe the stakes were lower then? I don't know.

I just know the feeling of disappointment when somebody, previously respected, parrots the latest talking point from their left/right tribe.


Jim Belshaw said...

Laughed at your old fogey's comment, kvd. Indeed. I haven't had enough feedback on this one to really get a balanced view, including from those more attracted to entertainment rather than news. If I'm right, Fairfax will get a feel reasonably soon from their web stats. I guess we will have to wait and see. Whether they can then do anything about it is a different issue.

The papers have always had varying and particular views. Growing up, I read the SMH plus the NDL and Express to get my balance. I think what is new at least in terms of scale is the convergence between reporting and opinion which has reduced the quantum of "pure" reporting. I also think, and I stand to be corrected on this, that more outlets take an explicitly ideological stance.