The future of news media is digital — but that doesn’t mean print is finished. In an exclusive Webinar for INMA members, Tim Robinson, managing editor of JPIMedia in the United Kingdom, shared many reasons why print is still strong, as well as tactics for adapting to the audience, remaining relevant, and the power of partnerships.
Robinson did not underplay the challenges print newspapers face — particularly local titles — calling them “substantial.” The most recent issue has been the skyrocketing cost of news print, which has added to the various obstacles surrounding the emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We could talk for some time about the negative side of the challenges for local media,” Robinson told INMA members. “But I think the point of this talk really was just to highlight some of the reasons that there are to be optimistic about the future and how that will work for us.”
His Webinar presentation was focused on the bright spots for local print media and the JPIMedia print strategy.
The future is digital, but print is not dead
“We know that our future is entirely digital,” Robinson said. “In the future print will, at some point, give way to that and disappear. Print has already lost the battle on breaking news — it’s become a different type of animal, and our print products have to offer something different.”
When approached correctly, he assured attendees that there are still reasons to be optimistic about print, particularly in the post-pandemic world: “The last two years have changed the reading behaviours and the habits of our readers significantly, and it’s given us some opportunities that I’d like to talk about and how we’re responding to them.”
Situational reading habits
The first reading habit that’s changed significantly is when people read print newspapers. They are no longer finding as much time during the week to do so, but rather reading in a “situational” style that puts more emphasis on weekends when they have more leisure time.
“A lot of our readers have become more focused on what’s driving their weekend,” Robinson said, noting that Saturday mornings tend to be a high print reading time.
JPI responded to that trend by developing a comprehensive package of leisure-based weekend products amongst all its titles, but particularly in print. These weekend editions focus on topics such as TV and movies, gaming, food and drink, books, gardening, and podcasts.
“So we’re pre-loading the weekend,” he explained. “On top of this, there’s a lot of local information based around things to do, places to go, things to read, entertainment, all that kind of stuff.”
Rather than focusing on hard news, JPI’s print editions are more about distraction and leisure topics for its readers.
“The pandemic gave us the opportunity to really step back and take a considered view about what people really want to read in print,” Robinson said. “Informed by digital analytics and by our own experience and relationship with our readers, we came to the conclusion that some of the old favourites and staples of local news, particularly in the U.K., are becoming less relevant to people’s lives.”
A different approach to sports
Sports coverage is an example of how the old mix of content is no longer relevant. While sports are an absolute staple for most local titles, readers’ needs and interests have changed — and the way sports are covered should change, too.
“We try to completely shift the balance towards things which involve and engage more people,” he said. “That sounds relatively simple, but the effect is to engage a much wider audience.”
Viewing sports coverage as a participation activity, rather than a spectator activity, is key. There is less focus on major professional matches and more coverage of mass participation events such as 5K or 10K community runs, as well as women’s sports. Reader interaction via fan commentary and opinion is also an important aspect.
“The idea is that sport is a leisure pursuit that people actually go out and do rather than watch,” Robinson explained. “I think we were guilty of ignoring a significant part of our readership,” he added, referring to women’s coverage.
When it comes to covering professional sports and major matches, the focus is more on analysis and players’ background stories. Print is not relevant when it comes to covering actual sporting events, which can be livestreamed and scores are instantaneously available. But the more nuanced coverage offers readers a deeper, more insider view they can’t get elsewhere.
“We are seeing some reward for this in terms of readers coming back to us, seeing us as part of their weekly and weekend reads,” Robinson said.
Standing out with unique content and trusted journalism
One of the biggest challenges that any media publisher faces is the sheer amount of content that is out there, vying for audience attention.
“People have a huge choice,” Robinson said. “What we are trying to achieve is establishing uniqueness around our content in print. We are conscious, more than ever before, that our brand and trust to provide local, engaged, and relevant information is much more important now than it ever has been.”
That uniqueness is built around the authority in local reporting that JPI has with its titles — thorough coverage of local community topics and providing content the audience simply can’t get on social media.
“As a news provider rather than a social media news gatherer, we try to reflect a much more positive and celebratory view of our communities,” he said.
JPI’s local titles “shout about” the positive things happening in their local communities in an approachable way, unlike social media, which often reflects the worst side of opinions and presentation of content.
“That celebration of our local areas has been bolstered recently with our new owners insisting on reinstating local editors into every one of our marketplaces,” Robinson shared.
Lack of trust in news media has also presented a major problem in recent times, and JPI’s response to that has been to campaign for its local communities on issues that matter where no one else does.
“As well as being positive and celebratory, we are continuing to try to fight for local causes, for local developments, for things which need to be corrected,” he said. “You can’t get that feeling from social media of collectively being a force for good.”
Working from home changed people’s interests
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns across the globe drastically changed how people got their news information, where they turned to for it, and the kind of content they were interested in. It also changed the types of “distraction” or entertainment content people were looking for.
“Working from home has drastically changed us,” Robinson said. “This has had two effects.”
People have more time that is no longer spent commuting.
The boundaries of people’s physical worlds are shrinking.
People are more connected with where they live and their sense of home and community — while at the same time, more connected in real ways to other people and places, through virtual interaction such as Zoom get-togethers across the world.
“This renewed interest in local place is something that we see as a unique opportunity to capitalise on,” Robinson said. “It’s about making sure that people see we are there for them, and understanding that now they have an interest in what’s going on in their street and their town.”
Content around real estate has been a significant driver of income for JPI in the last year-plus, he added. People are reestablishing their links to their homes and the communities in which they live.
“We think that’s a significant opportunity for local media to adapt to, to adapt our content agendas to, to match those expectations so they see us as the provider of local news,” he said.
Changing the visual language
It’s important news media publishers adapt how they express the information and content they’re conveying, Robinson said. JPI print titles today have a much greater emphasis on visual storytelling, with more photographs, illustrations, graphics, and other visual elements than ever before.
“Rather than the content of our papers being the traditional diet of text, image, headline, repeat, we are trying to create in our print papers much more of a visual mosaic of information,” he said.
One of the ways they do this is by using alternative storytelling formats (ASF) — telling a story in a non-linear narrative. This can include Q&As, visual explainers, maps, photo explainers with caption overlays, etc.
At JPI, print production for its various titles have been centralised and the majority of publications templated, then populated with content from each local newsroom.
The end result is a more visually appealing print product, with a more engaging reading experience. Traditional print is now tied with new types of content as well as new types of storytelling.
In the last two years, JPI has changed its print content mix by partnering with a number of different outside sources in innovative ways.
“They’ve taken us into new territory for local media, and they have the potential to take us a lot further,” Robinson said.
One of these partnerships is with the BBC in conjunction with its Local Democracy project, in which they send reporters to help cover the “democratic deficit.” Through this partnership, BBC’s Shared Data Unit is helping to train JPIMedia reporters with new skills in data journalism.
“For us, this is the cutting edge of new journalism skills that aren’t necessarily prevalent in local media. It enables us to take all kinds of information and turn it into very valuable stories which can be used in a variety of forms across our whole portfolio.”
This is taking JPI into new areas of content that are very relevant to its readers, on topics ranging from crime and transportation to health and sport.
Accessing young readers
Reaching the next generation is another way print can stay relevant, Robinson said. At JPI, they’ve partnered with First News, a newspaper for children distributed to schools throughout the U.K.
This introduces to children not only the habit of reading, but that of reading a print newspaper.
“This is absolutely golden for us as an opportunity to connect with younger readers, with our potential readers of the future, with their parents and their grandparents,” he said.
JPI runs one page of First News content in its local titles every week, building familiarity with this young audience and giving the adults in their lives a reason to buy the local print newspaper.
Using data-driven content at scale
Radar is a U.K. company that uses the latest AI tools to dynamically create high-quality content at massive scale. JPI works with Radar to generate automated content across its portfolio, both in print and online.
“All of this is specifically around areas of key interest to our readers. So, it’s crime, it’s health, it’s transportation,” Robinson said. “It’s publicly released data sets and it’s turned into interesting, recognisable stories. For us, the prize is not that they’re providing us with one story. They’re providing us with multiple versions of the same story.”
This allows JPI to publish various types of stories across its titles, in print and digital, and represents a huge area of potential growth. It’s also a very low-cost way of generating news content.
“This is just the beginning of that subject,” he added, referring to AI-generated journalism. “It’s something that I think will take us into new areas. For us, it’s something we’re watching really keenly to see where it will go and what potential it will have for us in the future. We think it’s significant.”
Robinson reiterated that although the future of news media is ultimately digital, print still exists, can still be relevant, and can still be innovative.
“Because it’s still a significant part of our revenue, we need to make it as relevant and as rich as possible,” he said. “We need to continually adapt and assess what our readers want.”
This includes existing readers as well as potential new readers, he added.
He identified four key areas in which he think print has the most potential:
Great localised content.
Innovation in content.
Greater print automation.
Print as a by-product of content creation.
“The future isn’t necessarily just around whether it’s online content or print content,” Robinson said. “The future for us is around our content itself and how that is more important than any of the means of production or the means of distribution.”
The future of JPI when it comes to print lies in full automation, he added: “The idea is that the content is written for the audience and then repurposed into print in a digital-first way, but with print essentially as a by-product of the creation process. Our aim is to make the production process as simplistic and as automated as possible so that all the people we employ as journalists spend their time being journalists. That’s how we’re going to meet our challenges of the future.”