Are country values compatible with online culture?

25 June 2012

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

As the recent events at Fairfax Media and News Limited have shown, media consumers are increasingly turning to online sources for content, and readership figures of traditional paper and ink publications have steadily declined.

Once an essential cornerstone of regional community discourse, covering local topics from crime, to taxes, to politics, and everything in between, the regional newspaper now also finds itself an endangered species, not just here, but also in the United States.

‘Even as the dominant national news organisations, both in print and broadcasting, discover ways to extend and even reinvent themselves in cyberspace, newspapers that serve neighbourhoods or city-wide or regional communities appear to be proving less resilient,’ said the Pew Research Centre in its 2012 State of the News Media report.

According to the report, when circulation figures and advertising revenue are combined, the American newspaper industry has shrunk 43% since 2000.

And these statistics are also indicative of trends occurring within regional Australian publications. Steve Kelly, editor of regional daily newspaper, The Warrnambool Standard, told upstart earlier this year, that for the first time in the history of the 140-year old Fairfax publication, circulation figures were beginning to fall.

‘You can see why,’ Mr Kelly said. ‘Because the online figures that we produce are showing an exponential increase in unique browsers.’

However, he noted that the business was struggling to translate the online migration of its readership into revenue, finding it ‘a slow process,’ to attract local advertisers towards the digital product. The same problem that is afflicting major metro papers such as The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

How then, can niche localised publications, which target an explicitly specific (often small) audience demographic, truly thrive in the online market?

While many large scale publications, including Crikey and The Australian are currently hoping the implementation of subscription fees will prove the antidote to declining advertising revenues, for small regional publications, the answer may not be so simple.

Editor of Wales Daily Post, Alison Gow, argues that asking audiences of regional publications to pay for content is an ultimately fruitless exercise. Instead, Gow suggests regional newspapers should aim to ‘build thriving, engaged communities that can be commercialised by marketing and advertising teams.’

At the heart of this contention, is the notion that regional newspapers have several advantages not enjoyed by many larger publications: a pre-existing community, forged by geographic locality, to which their content is relevant and valuable, and an intimate knowledge and understanding of this audience.

Fostering community culture in the online environment is perhaps one of the best hopes regional newspapers have of recapturing and engaging their readership, and making online localised journalism profitable.

However, this will require innovating methods of content distribution currently employed by many regional publications. Publications can no longer offer audiences tantalising titbits of content and expect a payoff. Uploading just one or two of the day’s bigger stories – as is currently common practice for many regional Australian newspapers – will simply not win-over today’s content hungry audiences.

In ‘Crises of Faith: The Future of Fairfax,’ Margaret Simons wrote, ‘the future of Fairfax is no longer expressed in terms of numbers, but payment; not quantity of audience, or not only quantity, but quality and intensity of connection.’

This statement holds just as true for the regional divisions of Fairfax, and indeed all other regional publications, regardless of ownership.

However, building such connection within an online environment provides a unique challenge, as was recently acknowledged by The New York Time’s David Carr:

‘The constancy of a daily paper… is a reminder to a city that someone is out there watching…You have to wonder whether it will still have the same impact when it doesn’t land day after day on doorsteps all over the city.’

The Guardian aptly noted, ‘too often, publishers move reluctantly online… seeing digital as a cost-cutting measure rather than as the entrance to a brave new world of screen-based journalism.’

Rendering such attitudes to digital publishing redundant will take time. However, it is becoming imperative that regional publications wholeheartedly embrace online culture as they strive to forge such connections with their readership.

To achieve this, it is essential that pre-existing real-world community ties persevere, even as these communities are encouraged to move into the online domain. Engagement through online discussion which encourages audiences to shape content and set the news agenda, will ultimately add layers and dimensions to these communities giving them validity both in and out of the digital realm.

Building their publication around an online community hub will provide regional news providers with the opportunity to utilise already existing community networks, relationships and culture to create a multifaceted community based around their content.

As the online community hub grows, local advertisers are likely to follow their communities lead; perhaps providing a truly sustainable business model for the local regional daily.

Alyce Hogg is studying a Bachelor of Journalism with Honours at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter: @alycehogg.