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April 24, 2018, 7:01 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The local news industry in Europe has seen dramatic upheaval. What can we learn from the things these smaller news organizations are worrying about, and how they’re trying to reinvent themselves for the digital age?

Reuters Institute researchers looked at newspapers in Finland, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, choosing comparable local or regional newspapers from each of these countries to examine. Many of their worries will resonate globally: Declining circulation, shrinking advertising revenues in print particularly, the difficulty of attracting a new and younger readership, and the forever-question of how to make up the deficit on the print side with online content. Feeling the dominance of platforms like Facebook as a distribution channel, while simultaneously trying to reduce reliance on them, is another common concern.

Here’s one revealing quote from the executive editor of a local evening paper in the UK, Huddersfield Examiner, reacting to an annoyed reader commenting on the site’s increase in “clickbait-y” stories. Compressed into it is the full weight of local news anxiety over digital access to content.

I said, ‘Well, we’re a business. We’re trying to keep the Examiner going for future generations, and the only way we can do that, because people aren’t buying as many papers anymore, is getting people on our website.’ I mean, he’s somebody who clearly just wants his news for free. He doesn’t want to come to the website; he just wants to be told this stuff and feels an entitlement to that information.

The head of digital business at the Finnish regional newspaper Keskisuomalainen worried about the publication’s ability to attract younger readers:

Are they still interested in local life? We assume that when you start a family and go to a job and buy a house, the local life becomes more interesting, too….We have to follow the reader and the user, we have to serve them content, whatever it is that they want, and we have to serve it wherever and in whatever device they want to use it.

Another editor found resistance to putting resources into digital innovation and encouraging digital-first thinking in her own newsroom:

It’s one thing our readers are not used to, to pay for something online. But also the journalists are not used to it, to concentrate online. It’s a generation thing. Especially the older colleagues sometimes find it hard to think online first, or mobile first. Print is everything for them, and it’s hard to accept that it’s changing.

These attitudes, though, are shifting as print-focused newsroom structures are turned on their heads. Kaleva, a newspaper in Finland, thinks of itself as “digital-first” with a dedicated online desk.

Kaleva considers itself a digital-first newsroom and maintains a separate online desk of six or seven staff members, who post articles and develop multimedia presentations. Web editor Niiles Nousuniemi said that although its online traffic has been higher than in other regional media houses in Finland, Kaleva is working to better integrate its digital and print activities. Kaleva also uses a bot named Clara to handle about 40 percent of online comments.

In Germany, Main-Post is trying to retrain people to think more about the elements of digital storytelling.

Main-Post has worked to spread an online mentality among the editorial staff, such as hosting ‘Digital Thursdays’ in which staff members learn how to produce online teasers, headlines, and videos….Main-Post aims to better plan its print and digital news offerings through an approach Andreas Kemper, managing editor, called ‘theme management.’ A team of three theme editors evaluates local news topic suggestions and determines whether to publish in print, online, or both; broaden the topic from the local edition into the regional newspaper; add a video or other multimedia component; create a special delivery approach for mobile; and post it at a certain time of day. The strategy, implemented in October 2017, has resulted in a 15 percent increase in page impressions because users can easily find the stories and are primed to check back for updates.

Newsrooms are developing new products that seem to be helping acquire new readers and subscribers. Ouest-France, a French daily paper that publishes both local and national news, launched a digital evening edition for weekdays and a separate newspaper for children. Nice-Matin, a daily newspaper covering southern France, has thrown staff resources behind a solutions-focused journalism section, which has attracted significant — and engaged — subscriber base:

The newspaper’s solutions journalism, which is produced by a video editor and three journalists, accounts for the most subscriptions of its online content, as well as drawing consistently positive comments on Facebook (the content is also featured in a four-page Sunday section in the print newspaper). In 2015, when the project was launched, it attracted 1,500 subscribers; that number has since grown to 8,000. Subscribers, who pay €9.90 per month and receive updates via an e-newsletter, can also vote each month on which topics the team tackles next and suggest ideas.

The full report, based on 48 interviews with staff at these newspapers as well as executives at the parent companies, is available here.

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