General

To make local newspapers fit for 21st Century purpose they have to have the DNA of a perfect network; if not, then their coffin will be silo shaped…


I suspect the latest news bulletin from the besieged Johnston Press might have been the trigger.

But this week brought another round of hand-wringing of the ‘Oh, my God, what can be done?’ variety as the venerable evening papers in the likes of Halifax and Peterborough found themselves no longer fit for 21st Century purpose and, therefore, going weekly…

It exercised the mind of George Brock… and, indeed, that of one Wannabe hack; whose hope of bagging a job on the PET probably just became that much slimmer as he pondered where all those local ad bucks were going…

If LivingSocial, Groupon and FourSquare were getting ‘local to work – a-hem – then why not the likes of Johnston, Northcliffe, Archant and the boys?

After all: ‘They exist in the same sector…’

Mr Brock is closing in on the space when he starts to see a world turning upside down as our society, the new economy and the advance of technology meet in that space called newspapers: ‘Digital communications alters all three and turns a lot upside down…

One example of which would be a local, ‘bottom up’ blogger trying to fill the news space that exists in Cleethorpes.

To my mind, the Wannabe Hack is wrong to suggest that Groupon, LivingSocial, FourSquare and their like – and we can add Facebook and Twitter into this conversation – exist ‘in the same sector’ as the weekly Cleethorpes Chronicle - launched by a former deputy editor at the Grimsby Evening Telegraph.

The point is that Facebook, Groupon and their ilk are networks, not silos. And the difference is fundamental to understanding why it is such a challenge for regional newspaper groups to re-invent themselves in a format fit for this upside down world of ours.

Because here’s the puzzle for both George Brock and the Wannabe Hack to solve.

If *part* of the answer is online advertising – not such a daft assumption given that its been the bedrock of newspaper income streams for the last 300 years – how do we find the ’sweet spot’ that is local advertisers (the Cleethorpes plumber, butcher, baker and candlestick-maker) meeting national brand advertisers drilling into local?

Be it TescoExtra or – more importantly for me, HM Government being able to pin a teenage pregnancy ‘campaign’ into, say, DN35? Whatever remains of what was once a £540 million annual pot of Whitehall advertising gold is still a huge chunk of money to be dropped into appropriate local news spaces.

The difficulty, of course, for the COI is how they effectively manage that spend when someone is going to have to pick up the phone to the Cleethorpes Chron to book some print ad space… or else work out whether Cleethorpes is in Johnston land, or Trinity, or Northcliffe… And if now they need to be speaking to the national ad agency that works with both Northcliffe and Trinity

… but doesn’t do Norfolk because that silo belongs to Archant; nor Peterbrough, that’s JP… and who does Brighton? Ah, now who do we need to speak to for the Argus?

In times of brutal cost efficiencies at the COI and beyond, that’s a complexity that they can really do without… and, as we have muttered before, the web really doesn’t like complex business models.

It likes simples, not silos.

It likes to go where it pleases – and not where the range of a paper van and a delivery boy dictate.

This is an interesting exercise. Put ‘Cleethorpes’ and ‘Newspapers’ into a Google search box. It’s how I found the Cleethorpes Chron.

The first entry you’ll find is not a newspaper in that silo sense; it is a network. It is Northcliffe’s LocalPeople network for Cleethorpes.

And their local person for Cleethorpes would appear to be ElsaWill.

Why is LocalPeople a network? Because if I go to their home page, there’s a map of LocalPeople outlets that stretch the length and the breadth of the UK… And whilst we’re on the subject of people building *networks* of localised content, you can throw Sky into that mix.

What they are doing in Tyne&Wear they can clearly do anywhere else in the UK…

So this is the point that people need to grasp; the danger is that the coffin currently awaiting the regional newspaper industry in both this country and the US will be silo-shaped.

For as long as they remain in a *different* sector to the FaceBooks, the Groupons and the LivingSocials of this world, their ability to hit that sweet, commercial spot of garnering both local and national brand bucks will continue to undermine their best efforts to get this web beast to work.

The future will be networked, will be collaborative and will involve people selling to people.

If you read one thing this weekend, read this: http://is.gd/LYPYiR

Ponder Shirky and his suggestion that we are witnessing the collapse of complex business models; and dovetail that thought with this line: “We’re seeing this shift away from top-down monopolies to human marketplaces. We placed our trust in big brands and faceless corporations, now we’re turning away and saying we actually want industries to be human again…’

Top-down ad networks that can’t get HM Government into every UK postcode simply and effectively because they’re not always in that silo that is Northcliffe/TM.

What is fascinating about LocalPeople and its network ilk is that it is getting human again.

It has Elsa.

And that’s the difference.

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