Building our new house
It’s time regional newspapers stopped talking about the digital tipping point. Let’s just get on with it.
I was struck by Jeff Jarvis’s recent polemic, ‘If I ran a newspaper…’ published on Medium.
In it, he quoted an unnamed editor’s description of the predicament he — and many of us — find ourselves in:
“We have two houses. One is on fire and the other isn’t built yet. So our problem is that we have to fight the flames in the old house at the same time we’re trying to figure out how to build the new one.”
He was, of course, describing the rock-and-a-hard place dilemma that’s beset legacy media brands for more than a decade now: We know print is declining fast, and the future’s digital, but the problem is most of our revenues are still in the former, and the latter will never generate the money we made back in the day.
I’ve lived in this cleft stick for most of my career. The legendary ‘tipping point’ is still talked about hypothetically years after it should have become a reality for more of this country’s legacy media — particularly in the regions. The tipping point comes when your digital revenue growth offsets your print revenue decline. Rather than waiting reluctantly for it to happen — or indeed trying to postpone it — we should have been doing everything to make it happen on our terms. Unfortunately, I think the industry dragged its feet for too long.
So I am excited that here in Birmingham we’ve at last been given the opportunity to not only build the new house, but to move in and make it our home. At the same time, we’re sending more firemen to deal with the blaze next door. (I promise that’s the last tortured metaphor, for now, at least).
We announced this week that we are creating a new, standalone and sustainable digital business that could be a model for similar enterprises across the UK and beyond.
At the heart of the new operation is a digital-only newsroom forged from the team that has made BirminghamMail.co.uk the fastest-growing regional news website in the UK for much of the past year. Thanks to my team’s efforts, we reach more than 50% of Brummies every week, and now we want to reach even more with our new approach.
At the same time, we want the new model to be completely self-sustainable, achieving a profit driven by programmatic and solus digital advertising, and not over-dependent on print upsell from legacy clients. There’ll be whole new revenue streams, too.
The new newsroom will be more than digital-first; it will be digital only.
Print will continue, but we think it, also, is best served by separating its fortunes more clearly from digital.
Jeff Jarvis’s call-to-arms was remarkable for how closely his prescription for change matched what we’re trying to do in Brum. It read like a manifesto, so here’s ours:
When you lose pounds in print, you only ever get pennies back online / we’ll never make enough money to have a newsroom as big as it was ten years ago.
True(ish), and true. Sadly, we know the future requires the business to be leaner and more flexible than we are now, and despite years of seemingly endless restructures and job losses, we will have to make further reductions. We are building the new model by asking the question: “What size newsroom can we afford, given what we know about our current and future digital scale, how much programmatic revenue we get, and how much new digital revenue we think is out there in the market?”. The answer, after some posts have been put back into print, is a newsroom that has a handful of roles fewer than currently. We don’t know the exact figure yet, because we want to build the new newsroom in consultation with our newsteam.
If you’re focused on digital 100% you might not have enough words to fill tomorrow’s paper. In an analytics-driven newsroom, you go for the stories that engage more people more meaningfully — and tell them using audio, video, data and graphics, if that’s what’s needed. You don’t write stories to fill a pre-assigned slot for an audience that isn’t there. In print, however, we promise spreads for specific football teams and other setpieces, and you can’t easily make a page feature out of a video, either. So in the new world, we’re giving the print side of the business some dedicated print-only writers to ensure our newspaper readers continue to get get value-for-money every day. This liberates the digital newsteam to deploy its resources to serve the most people in the most engaging way. Sure, the print unit can take all the words and pictures they like from the website, but now they’ll have a small team to help fill any gaps.
When you’ve achieved scale, you have to build engagement. In an ideal world, you’d do both, but the entry price in the digital game is an audience of scale, so that’s what we’ve focussed on for the past few years. Now we’ve achieved it (35m monthly PVs), this scale gives us permission to deepen and enrich our relationships with our audiences, and to build new ones. We want people to read more articles on the site, watch more videos, stay longer and come back more often. With better engagement, particularly with a local audience, comes more alluring opportunities for advertisers who value targeting and trust in equal measure. So in our new world, we’ll be marrying the eternal values of excellent journalism — standing up for our readers and championing their interests — with the analytical tools of the 21st century. Through analytics, research and shoe leather, we’ll be building up pictures of more communities in Birmingham, and devising ways of super-serving them through excellent journalism, social media, info, and whatever else it takes. Every one of our writers will develop an audience to cover and serve. Sometimes that ‘patch’ might well be geographical, but more often, I suspect, it will be defined along the lines of communities of interest. For example, tens of thousands of Brummies use buses every day, but I’m not sure we’re currently serving them in the best way we can. To help accelerate our audience plans, we’ll be working with the team at Hearken to ensure we’re truly listening and learning from our readers. We’ll also construct our rotas to give writers the time they need to nurture these new communities.
A newspaper brand can be a double-edged sword. We’re changing our name online from BirminghamMail.co.uk to BirminghamLive, (but the Birmingham Mail will continue to serve the city in print six days a week). For me, this has been one of the hardest aspects of planning this change — I grew up in this city, and my dad brought home the (then) Evening Mail every night. However, I’m 100% sure the name change is the right thing to do, for a number of reasons.
A newspaper brand carries a lot of baggage with it, whether or not a person is familiar with the specific title. Birmingham is the youngest and most diverse city in the UK, so hundreds of thousands of people who we want to reach grew up in households that never even read the newspaper, and they may never in their lives have picked up the Mail in print. And with a newspaper brand comes the limiting perception of what newspapers do and how they should do it. Take a look at the annoyingly brilliant Angry People in Local Newspapers blog to understand what I mean by a limiting perception. When we try new content and approaches, this can sometimes jar with some people’s perceptions of what we’re ‘allowed’ to do as a newspaper brand.
For advertisers well-versed in digital marketing, I’m afraid the continuing perception of the newspaper industry as being ‘yesterday’s medium’ endures, despite the reality. The newspaper brand can be a blocker to meaningful conversations with agencies and clients who should, in fact, be drawn to our extraordinary reach into our communities, and our unique relationships with our readers.
With a new brand related to, but separate from, the legacy newspaper identity, I believe we can forge new relationships with readers and advertisers.
Sometimes the best way to engage with a new audience might be something other than your own website. It might even be something other than journalism. When we discover more about potential new audiences in Birmingham, we need to provide the solutions and services they want and will actually engage with, and not necessarily just a version of the journalism we already do. In the smartphone age, only 5% of the average person’s attention is devoted to news on their device. Can we build a business by limiting ourselves to 5% of people’s attention, or can we own more of the remaining 95%? We are creating a ‘Build’ unit within our newsroom whose task is to delve deep into what Brummies want and come up with new ideas about ways to serve them. Often, the answer will be new and different content, but we need to be prepared to build something when the answer is ‘a new app’, ‘a new social page’ or even ‘a new event’.
But the Indie’s gone digital, as have a load of magazines and trade publications — what’s different here? Lots of titles are going digital only, that’s true — but only after shutting their print incarnations. What’s different in Birmingham is we’re building a sustainable digital business structure now to sit alongside our print business, so we’re ready for the challenge when it comes, rather than respond in the middle of a real crisis. I believe there remains several years’ profitable life in the Birmingham Mail in print, but that doesn’t mean we should put off the creation of a digital-only model until the last minute. That would be a massively risky strategy in my view. What kind of foundations will remain for us to build on as print gasps its last breaths? We owe it to our readers, our advertisers and our hard working journalists to build the future now, while we still can.
It’s time to take possession of the keys to our new house.