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..
- 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.
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.
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. . .
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.