An excellent piece in the Guardian’s G2 section on the future of local newspapers by Stephen Moss last Friday set me marshalling developing thoughts on a way forward. By throwing off the baggage of the past, in the minds of journalists as well as in the physical printing presses and distribution some sort of misty vision is possible.
But first, go back in history to consider why people started newspapers in the 18th and 19th century. It was mostly money or political influence. Names like the Rugby Advertiser and the Morcambe Visitor tell us their first printers were looking for profits.
Anti Corn Law League accounts show nearly £20,000 was spent on publishing newspapers, including the salaries of editors and contributors, in the 15 months to December 31, 1834. There was another item of more than £11,000 for printing, stationery, newspapers, reporting and so on.
During the the 19th century there was rapid expansion driven by increased literacy and new technologies including continuous paper making and rotary presses. The use of contributed material (”citizen journalism” if you must) was commonplace.
The idea of independence and public service also developed among journalists and sympathetic owners. The taste of people has not really changed that much. Then as now scandal, chicanery, crime pulled in the most hits: people still like to see themselves and their neighbours in the media.
And democracy still raises passion. Recently only the influence seekers have had a taste for starting newspapers as councils have done to the annoyance of commercial publishers. So anyone starting a new local media operation today is faced with some very similar factors to those of their 19th century predecessors.
The tastes of audiences, the need to have sufficient content at the lowest cost and to bring in money from advertising, sales or backers, are little changed. But there is little doubt that the traditional newspaper business model is bust.
Competition has been growing for a very long long time from radio, television and direct marketing. At the same time local communities have become less self-contained. Car ownership means people travel out of their communities for work, entertainment and shopping reducing the effectiveness of local newspaper advertising.
So where do we start if we want to set up a new local business to supply news and other information. First, I believe we have to forget about newspapers, television or radio as such. Any new business will have to think in multi-media terms and the initial distribution medium will be the web.
Content will have to come from a core of journalists working with contributors. I have some ideas on low cost incentives for unpaid contributors which I will explain in a future post. It will also have to be hyperlocal, down almost to street level.
Anyone will be able to post a notice about their missing cat as well as putting posters on trees and telegraph poles. However, when you start examining hyperlocal the concept becomes more difficult. I began thinking in terms of the kind of weekly newspapers which used to fill their pages with neighbourhood flower shows, pictures of school plays, village fetes and WI meetings.
Not many years ago most people lived, worked and played within a small radius of their homes. Not now. Audiences have horizons that are beyond the physically hyperlocal. The new sandwich shop near where they work is important to them, as are the planned road works and their route to the office and the new menu at a pub on the coast In other words, we cannot think in terms of traditional newspaper circulation areas.
I started drawing circles on maps of Suffolk and came up with population areas ranging from 200,000 to 600,000 people. Inevitably my viable areas overlapped. However you draw the lines there are going to be compromises. Potential advertising and other possible sources of revenue also come into the equation.
Once a town of 20,000 people might provide enough local advertising. Now many of the people in that town will travel for what were once local services. So the area and population to be covered inevitably increases. If we are to provide very local information it has to be drawn from a large pot.
This leads to the need to reconsider the traditional newspaper structure which is largely followed by websites. The user needs to be able to extract their village news. A three level web structure would go Home — Sport — Football and Home — Entertainment — Music, very much like the sections and pages of a newspaper.
There has to be a way of getting users to their very local news quickly. My best solution, relatively simple and cheap (low costs are essential), is to use tags as an additional navigation tool. I would love to hear about better solutions.
It is not just news that is required. Listing of places to eat out, cinemas, music, theatre, clubs, specialist shops are all vital. Organisations and businesses will have to provide the information by becoming registered users of the site and entering their own data.
Getting their support will be as important as finding news contributors. Often they will be the same people. A band putting up details of a gig on the music listings should be happy to write a short advance story and embed their YouTube video.
The best listings in the area will be essential both to bring people to the site and to involve the maximum number of people as contributors. In my vision a small core of journalists work with contributors as well as digging up their own stories and moderating incoming copy (always subject to editing).
Then there is the big question of where the money comes from. First, I don’t believe that it will work as a traditional profit-making business and would have to be set up as a a social enterprise business like the Big Issue and the restaurant Fifteen.
Only in that way will the public trust needed for such a project to succeed be forthcoming. Income from advertising alone is unlikely to be sufficient. But by drawing in hits for both news and listings such a site could be attractive to small businesses as well as larger ones.
On-line selling would be a delicate matter. For example, directing book sales to Amazon would not encourage support from independent booksellers. But there should be ways of working with local businesses. The site would also operate as a news agency selling content to other media and sharing revenue with contributors.
Whether the listener/viewer contributions system which sustains public broadcasting in the United States would work in the UK is unknown but the decline in local newspapers could just provide the conditions for it to take root.
And an enterprise established in this way could in time produce printed publications. But the web has to be the starting point. It is a dream. But if it is to happen now might just he the right time.