Leading figures within the industry, including Chris Jackson of BBC’s Inside Out, Gerry Foley of ITV News, the Editors of Sky News, Johnston Press, the Journal and The Northern Echo, gathered at the David Puttnam Media Centre in Sunderland on the 9th of March to discuss the future of media, with Labour’s Shadow Media Minister Helen Goodman MP being one of the keynote speakers.
Due to the gradual change from one medium to another, regional and local media are facing vast changes and challenges, like the falling circulation of papers and the constant competition for advertising revenues. In order to ensure survival, the regional press must find new ways of engaging with consumers by embracing digital media. They have to be more creative on how to capitalise on the power of their brands online: everything is still on the table, from pay walls to the free distribution model. We shouldn’t hang on terms and labels such as ‘newspapers’ anymore.
The ‘newspapermen at heart’, as they admitted, editors from the first panel agreed that they don’t know where media are going, but they are positive and it’s good fun. Northern Echo admitted that they haven’t addressed yet the issue of how to make money online. No-one has cracked the business model to take the industry forward – maybe only Google knows where the money is. Had they moved faster though, they could have made a big mistake – and MySpace was used as an example to back-up their argument. They refused that the industry is at panic stations, which left the audience wondering how can’t they possibly ignore the pink elephant in the room.
Although a lot of readers are traditional with reduced or no interest in online, local newspapers must evolve to accommodate to every audience’s needs. Everything should be used alongside papers by enhancing it with multimedia elements. We heard that people’s sphere of interest in news is within a 16-mile radius of where they live, making local media indispensable part of the community. Who else can take up local causes like regional titles can?
Sky News launched recently Sky Tyne and Wear, as a way of getting away from conventional TV, Simon Bucks told the audience. His defensive behaviour when asked about figures on money or users, lead to an obvious overall disappointment. Their move of going from ads to subscription raised many issues. Even if it doesn’t make any money though, that is not the point; I guess that is a sign of the future. Those who can afford to produce more online outlets for their brand will survive; because either if the pilot is successful or not, Sky will be considered as a brand much contemporary with a strong online presence.
The issue of PCC electrified the atmosphere; Helen Goodman considered it “failed and utterly discredited” when for Bob Satchwell “it worked just fine for regional and local press”. The Shadow Minister stressed how current rules allow enormous monopolies but don’t support the independency of local businesses. “News is not just a commodity to be bought and sold, local media are not a shop front for international businesses. They are vital for our democracy, as they hold local authorities to account and support local identity and culture. The public want and are entitled to local news.”
Overall, the taste left from the media conference is bittersweet. On one hand, digital enhances opportunities for publishers, increasing appetite for news and information. But on the other hand, a lot of hard work needs to be done. The focus should be put on the content instead of the advertising, which some local newspapers seem to forget. Newspapers must invest in quality, perhaps in a smaller pool of specialist journalists who will add value in the new age. Analysis is what separates print from online media, and if we keep delivering products of an exquisite quality, eventually “the money will follow the eye-balls”, in Satchwell’s words. ‘We might live in a global media world, but life is still local”, so I guess there is still light at the end of the tunnel for local media.