Resource, not news source: How service journalism can help news publishers thrive

Stack of newspapers - service journalism
Recycled as ballot papers

Last week, I wrote that ad-funded digital news publishers were having a terrible time. But there are some reasons for optimism, if publishers are prepared to think more strategically.

It’s been apparent for a few years that US regional titles are performing better than their UK counterparts, despite costs being taken out en masse by their owners. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to some extent, given that the scale of ‘local’ is so different between the two countries, but the reality is that US local news titles are looking more sustainable than your average local paper (which isn’t actually saying all that much).

There are a few reasons why that might be the case: In the UK regional publishers tend to take costs out from local titles, and retreat to hub-based models that rob each title of truly local content (a rant Matt had five years ago, and which proved to be prescient). That then has a knock-on effect on UK local titles’ websites, which are for the most part unfit for purpose and flooded with low-quality ads in an attempt to salvage all possible revenue.

But the primary reason I would like to believe US titles are in ruder health than UK counterparts is that their editors have found a way to deliver upon the promise of journalism as ‘news’ itself become commoditised. US newspaper sites effectively provide what we’d call ‘service journalism’, providing much more in-depth local information and listings. As Better News writes in the article “How the Minneapolis Star Tribune helped its readers ‘be better voters’“:

“Over the last couple cycles, we began to notice a steep decline in the number of candidates that responded to our questionnaire. This made us question the amount of work we were putting into it. And the Minnesota secretary of state’s office already provides a polling place finder and sample ballot, further diminishing MyVote’s unique value. So we started thinking about other ways we could help readers find the election-related information they need to be better, more informed voters.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune effectively pushed further into being a resource for its readers, rather than a simply news source. By providing a service that was still recognisably journalism but was divorced from the pell-mell nature of churning out stories to game ad revenue as many UK local journalists have been forced to do, the paper is capitalising on increased engagement over short-term ad dollars. Its digital projects editor Matt DeLong explains:

“Our newsroom has been trying a number of experiments that have been geared around a simple premise: digital readers have different expectations than print readers — and serving those readers is key to building our digital subscriber base. We learned a lot from this one, and we plan to carry those lessons forward into other projects in the near future.”

The transition to service journalism isn’t something UK local newspapers have been doing, but they should, and sooner rather than later. Pink News, the LGBTQ+ focused site based in the UK, has a similar mantra of being as much of a resource for its readers as a source of news, and over the past year has significantly grown the type and amount of content it produces, on the back of investment in those areas. Its head of platforms Emma Stuart credits this resource-focused strategy as one of the reasons why the site gets so much direct traffic, a much stabler and more engaged source of traffic than the fly-by-night platform referral crowd, one on which it is building new revenue strategies.

The old adage that you cannot cut your way to growth remains absolutely true in 2019. As UK local titles are stripped back of their ability to actually produce local journalism though job cuts and a hub-first mentality, so too is their ability to transition to valuable service journalism. Writing for Nieman Lab’s year-end predictions, Dataminr data analyst Geetika Rudra says:

“In 2019 publishers and platforms will have to pay more attention to information distribution, and not information creation. We’re not lacking any of the data needed to report on local government, businesses, services, and environment. But we are lacking the ability to precisely distribute the information we have to the right people who need it.”

As analysts like Roy Greenslade predict that all local newspapers in the UK will be digital-only within the next few years, it’s high time their owners stopped simply managing decline and instead looked to successful service journalism outlets as a path for sustainability. The strength of local has always been in the in-depth knowledge its journalists have on the local area. Now is the time to let those journalists loose to provide resources instead of constantly playing catch-up with an unforgiving news agenda.

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.