At the big international news media conferences, everyone anticipates the blockbuster presentations by the well-known national and international companies that drive the industry’s digital transformation.

But not every media company is a big one, and what applies to the giants might not apply in local markets.

Small media houses need to assess their own resources and needs to create a digital strategy.
Small media houses need to assess their own resources and needs to create a digital strategy.

Resources are limited, audiences are smaller, and even finding qualified staff can be a problem. Small market media face their own particular challenges, and while they can learn from big companies, their issues are often secondary when global media gathers for meetings.

While larger media companies are fast becoming digital- and mobile-first organisations, local media have less revenue, less access to qualified staff, and are often still driven by print-centric organisational structures. All this impedes digital transformation.

It isn’t a question of will; most local companies have digital strategies in place. The problem is they aren’t happy with them and are having difficulties in carrying them out.

That, at least, is the experience of a group of local and regional publishers in Germany and Austria. These publishers have come together regularly over the past decade to share experiences and work on digital innovation. This think tank, called Mission:local, is run by the Institute for Media Strategies. In collaboration with INMA, it recently set out to benchmark their reader revenue strategies and approaches, identifying what needs to change in the digital age.

As with the big companies, small media have found advertising revenues from digital to be disappointing. No matter the size of the market, successful digital strategies are focusing on driving more revenue from readers through subscriptions.

The 10 companies in the recent meeting have print circulations ranging from 28,000 to 190,000 daily and digital-only subscribers ranging from 1,000 to 48,000. All of them are working on strategies to increase reader revenue in digital.

But none of them are completely satisfied with the results.

When they looked into the reasons for their dissatisfaction, several shortcomings emerged. Though reader revenue was a priority in the strategy, resources were poorly aligned with the goal; not enough staff or revenue was dedicated to acquisition and retention of digital subscribers. While local news content was already digital, print-rooted culture was still strong throughout the organisation. The news organisations also found that the expertise to exploit user data, an essential component of an audience-centric strategy, was difficult to find in small markets.

Identifying these problems was one of the outcomes of the recent workshop. The next step is to realign resources so the strategies can be better implemented.

In most traditional newspaper companies, the marketing department is responsible for acquisition and for retention. But in the digital realm, the departments responsible for content and for product and user experience increase in importance for reader acquisition and retention. Often the staff allocation is out of balance and can be rectified by putting the resources where they are needed.

Many traditional newspaper companies continue to struggle with organisational change and are still driven by the legacy of print. Publishing is still organised around print deadlines, and even the schedule of daily news meetings is built with print deadlines in mind. And perhaps most importantly, using data analytics to determine audience needs and desires is outside of traditional print culture, which relies more on “gut feeling” to make decisions. Data is central to any digital strategy.

With management commitment to change, and a realisation that print no longer needs to be at the centre of workflows and practices, this engrained culture can be replaced with one more attuned to digital needs. The starting point should be a clear strategy followed by the entire organisation — and not just editorial. This should be a holistic strategy incorporating distribution, marketing, and technology as well.

The availability of qualified staff, particularly staff adept at the deep analysis of audience data, remains a chronic problem, not only in news companies but anywhere digital has disrupted businesses. With a bigger shortage in smaller markets, some companies are turning to internal training programmes and even partnerships with local colleges and universities.

But the problem remains difficult to solve. Staff can use their new skills to find employment elsewhere, and recent graduates don’t have sufficient experience.

Small market media have their own set of needs, and identifying them and understanding how these influence strategies is the first step to success.