How to halt the sad, slow, silent retreat of local journalism


What is the largest news organisation in the world?

If you measure total readers/viewers/users, you must answer Facebook, which enjoys more than one  billion active users. That’s about 20 times more people than the circulation of the top 20 newspapers combined.

“But,” you may ask, “is Facebook a news organisation?”

Certainly not as we have defined news organisations in the past. But today, when you ask people where they heard “the news,” many will say “Facebook.” And, as much as many experienced journalists will be loath to hear this, those little bits and clips and pics on Facebook are, in fact, news.

A baby’s birth, an engagement, pictures from a party or even dancing cats can all be justifiably called news. And these news stories are about the reader’s friends and family members, which are more relevant to them than 90% of what they see or read in mainstream news media channels.

Facebook reports news about people we know — even news about us. And, of course, it allows us to be the reporter, photographer, and editor.

And what about newspapers?

Over the past few years, we’ve watched a troubling trend. Newspaper publishers have been working hard to manage decreases in circulation and advertising revenues by cutting costs.

In some cases it has been drastic, as when the newspaper is shut down. In other cases, newspapers have cut their publishing schedules or moved to digital or print/digital hybrid editions.

In Australia (and I’m sure in many other countries), there is a move to centralise newsrooms and eliminate the costly duplication that has existed for years. The ramification of consolidation is that stories become less “niche” as they necessarily need to appeal to larger audiences.

In some ways, newspaper stories will begin to look more like broadcast stories, with only the big events being covered: crime, political scandals, revolutions, natural disasters, and major sports.

But where will we find stories about our kids’ schools, or the taxes we’ll be paying next year, or the new development that is going to be built next to our neighbourhood? Sadly, it may not be in the newspaper.

And so we face a real, if somewhat hidden, danger: an explosion of “personal news” and a slow dissolution of relevant, local journalism.

Can newspaper marketers have any impact on this development? Yes, of course.

In the heyday of mass marketing, companies produced a product and asked marketers to sell it. Today, the consumer is empowered to say, “This is what I want — who will produce it?” So we must make sure that we use all the classical marketing strategies: pricing, distribution, promotion, and most importantly, PRODUCT.

We have to create new products that answer the consumer’s brief, not simply sell what we’ve always produced. The marketer’s voice should be loud and strong in these discussions.

As we write our plans for the next few years, we can either preside over the sad, slow, and silent decline of newspapers, or we can use the valuable assets we own to create newly relevant products that answer the consumer’s brief — or create an answer for a brief they have yet to write.

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