UK Regional Media: Mass print only has a few years left

As investment in local newsletter operation shows another future is possible

When the industry publication like the Press Gazette in the UK prints this, it feels like a wake up call about the state of regional journalism in the country:

Why do we start from the point that these companies are worth saving? They are not. And the more we talk about this, the more we are failing to focus on ways that new journalism might emerge. In other words, there is much to be said for letting the whole rotting edifice collapse and see what crawls from the rubble.

Michael Gilson, former editor of newspaper titles now owned by National World and Newsquest

Gilson’s point is that efforts to save local journalism in the UK - here call regional journalism - shouldn’t be focused on propping up the large newspaper groups such as Reach and National World, which he called “a handful of husk-like companies led by overpaid chief execs employing ever-decreasing numbers of low-paid but blameless reporters”. Ouch again.

In short, he wants to allow these large companies to continue to decline while there is support in the way of grants, charitable endowments and also some state funding to support start-ups that are exploring new models.

From the experience in the US, this will happen regardless of what the government does or does not do. The big giants in the US and the UK are becoming less and less rooted in communities and much more regionalised, spreading thin staffs over wider areas and providing less community news. This is allowing scrappy small players to develop and grow on their own. I’ll get to that in a minute.

And Gilson refers to a report from well-respected media watchers Enders Analysis that says that mass print has only a few years left, about three to five. From what I’m hearing in my work, the costs of print are simply becoming prohibitive. Publishers really need to game out what would happen in a digital-only or at least digital-dominant local journalism world. In Reach’s latest quarterly results, digital revenue was down 16% to £60m while print revenue still dwarfed that figure at £217m. Even if you take the costs of print out of the equation, those businesses simply couldn’t operate at that scale if they lost the bulk of their revenue. Enders says that publishers will have to transform themselves into sustainable digital businesses. While the UK has some unique challenges, this is possible.

And almost on cue, one model is attracting not only audiences but also investment. Newsletter-first publisher, The Mill has seen investment from the former NYTimes CEO and recently named CNN CEO Mark Thompson and Axios Publisher Nicholas Johnson. It’s a smart move by Johnson who is building out his own local newsletter network in the states under the Axios brand. For established players, newsletters have become a critical audience development tool, and for start-ups, they have become the MVP - the minimum viable product - that allows them to enter new markets.

I mentioned that lay-offs the Texas Tribune earlier this week, and Nieman Lab called on the organisation to be more transparent about what happened so that other non-profits can learn from it. One thing that seems to have happened is that the Texas Tribune received some of its funding from educational advertising, which seems to have been curtailed under new rules by the state of Texas.

A look at the positive reception that Mark Thompson is receiving as he takes over the helm of CNN. I think that his ability to navigate the ‘institutional politics’ of an organisation like CNN will be his most valuable trait. Seeing as his predecessor came in and shuttered a new digital-only offering, it will be interesting to see what Thompson brings in terms of digital strategy to CNN.

With much of this newsletter focused on local news, here is a good thing to digest over the weekend: an overview of the relationship of the decline in local journalism and increased partisanship in the US. I do remember when I was a local editor that some local folks who had an axe to grind about Big Media didn’t distinguish the coastal media elites that they loved to rail against and our tiny local newsroom.

Today in AI: Gannett pulls back from an experiment after glaring issues and authors sue OpenAI

Gannett was in the news and definitely not the kind of headlines it would want. The US newspaper giant was using AI to write some of its local sports reports, and sadly, it seems that they didn’t think to have a copy editor take a look over them. Sigh.

This case will have a profound impact on the interpretation of copyright in the age of large-language models. If a piece of content is used to train an LLM, does that mean that every work is derivative of the original scraped works? And if so, how will compensation be determined?

Ben Smith of Semafor posted this in the wake of the announcement that the Washington Post would be laying off staff from its Arc XP CMS platform. I think the issue is that while Vox and the Post built tools that worked for them and then tried to seek a new revenue stream by selling on that technology. The issue is that is split the focus of product development for the businesses and created tensions between the internal product roadmap and the roadmap for their external customers. The Post tried to strike a balance and still seems to be trying to succeed in that balancing act. But whether the layoffs at the Washington Post are indicative of larger problems for the parent company or another data point in why publishers shouldn’t become tech companies has yet to be seen.

And one last social media note for the week. Meta’s Threads is trying to iterate quickly to regain lost momentum. Meta is good at that, but the social space is particularly cluttered right now. There will have to be a shake-out of all of these platforms that have sprung up in the wake of Twitter’s drama-filled decline since Musk bought it as his personal plaything.