Engaging with local readers and serving the community can be profitable too

Sufficiently engaging with local readers is now said to be the key to attract readers to a newspaper. Writing for The Conversation, Rachel Matthews, who has worked in the regional newspaper industry for 15 years and is a lecturer in Journalism at Coventry University, the UK, says that the national press is given more attention by both academia and industry despite regional titles dominating in terms of local readers and profits for much of UK newspaper history. A significant point she makes is: profit and community benefit are not incompatible. “Now, with cost cuts, digital editions and other concerns, it can be just as easy to forget about this community role which local newspapers have made their own – but equally, it needn’t be a choice between revenue and serving a community. The future of the local newspaper lies in it working in a way which supports its role as watchdog. By investing financially in and articulating clearly that it provides a service to the community, local newspapers can weather any changes,” she explains.

Matthews points to the new generation of ‘sociolocal’ newspapersthat would put community benefiton an equal footing with an element as important as circulation. It is not some distant dream or academic hypothesis, she says, providing the examples of the family-owned Isle of Wright County Press and the cooperative-run West Highland Free Presswho “have written this relationship into their business model, and are working to preserve community values while turning a profit”. “If these newspapers are to have a sustainable future, they need to be rescued from the tug of love battle between profit and community which has beset them for 70 years.”

A report prepared for the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation by Jessica Crowell and Kathleen McCollough talks about the importance of running focus groups in the local news community.
As newsrooms reinvent their business model, design new products and services, and invest in community engagement efforts, it is critical that they listen deeply to their communities, they suggest. According to them, focus groups are one model of listening that can be very effective in gathering feedback from a cross-section of people who represent different voices and stakeholders in an area. “The feedback gave newsrooms the confidence to test new ideas and take risks that otherwise might have seemed like blind experiments. We believe that these kinds of focus groups can be important tools for newsrooms to listen to their communities.”

Steve Gray, VP of Strategy and Innovation at Morris Communications in the USA, writing for the WAN-IFRA website, says that as the relentless decline in ad revenues empties more and more newsroom desks, there’s been a little-noted side effect: waning commitment to locally written editorials. Gray intends to make the case for strong local opinion writing as a key element of community journalism, which creates value. Narrating his experience as an editorial writer, he says he came to understand that the most important editorials were those that unravelled community issues with a combination of facts and logic borne of a desire to raise the common good.


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