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Sept. 24, 2020, 2:23 p.m.
Audience & Social

As local news outlets shift to subscription, they wonder: What should Facebook’s role be?

“Look, I know you got that Facebook comment, but it’s the vocal minority. There’s a silent majority who are actually paying for our work.”

European local news publishers are moving toward publishing less but better and more differentiated content — and they want readers to pay up, according to a study out Thursday from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. That means a reconsideration of Facebook, which still drives a lot of traffic to these publishers.

Joy Jenkins, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, conducted her research between December 2019 and March 2020. It includes 20 interviews with leaders from eight local and regional newspapers in Finland, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Those outlets are Kaleva (Finland), Etelä-Suomen Sanomat (Finland), Ouest-France (France), Nice-Matin (France), Westfalenpost (Germany), Main-Post (Germany), Yorkshire Post (U.K.), and Kent Messenger (U.K.) This builds on 2018 research by Jenkins and Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.

Overall, the managers and editors were optimistic about a turning point for their outlets’ digital presence and a willingness from audiences to pay for news. However, they were also concerned about continuing to “innovate their digital offerings, retain newsroom talent, and maintain and attract readers who recognize the value of supporting high-quality local news.”

Those concerns were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as has been the case in the United States. “Although many of the news organizations initially saw unprecedented online traffic as audiences sought out local information about testing, infection rates, and closures, they also experienced sharp declines in advertising, event revenues, and print deliveries,” Jenkins writes. “Some organizations also faced furloughs, layoffs, and closures. Even so, the need for accurate, credible local information persists, and these outlets remain committed to producing and reinforcing the value of local news.”

And while readers are willing to pay for news, they often only see national news outlets as needing support. European audiences “are often not aware of the revenue challenges their local outlets face,” Jenkins writes. (That’s also the case in the U.S.: Last year, Pew found that 71% of Americans believe local news is doing well financially; only 14% had donated or made a payment of any kind to any form of local news in the previous year.) “Additionally, local newspapers are valued more in some countries (Germany, Norway, Spain, the U.S.) than others (the U.K., France), which directly translates to readers’ willingness to subscribe and donate to local news.”

“Why haven’t I got a copy of your newspaper? I pay my taxes,” a reader once asked Iliffe Media’s audience development officer, Paul Fisher.

Here are some more findings from the report:

— Facebook “remains a significant traffic-driver” for the outlets in the report, but they’ve changed the way they use it: “Just as Facebook as a company has shifted its focus from public posts to groups and private messaging, the newspapers have scaled back their reliance on the platform for achieving algorithmic reach and instead use it strategically to promote subscriptions, connect with targeted groups, and reach new audiences,” Jenkins writes.

EditorJost Lübben said that for Westfalenpost, Facebook is the most important channel for selling subscriptions (it accounts for 30% of traffic), particularly for the flagship newspaper. However, he said the staff are working to differentiate fly-by readers from stable or loyal or heavy users, as well as reinforce to older or long-time readers that “digital journalism in this style, how we make it, is not free. They have to pay for it. It’s worth paying for.”

Ultimately, Lübben said he considers Facebook both an enemy and a friend. “We are in the situation to cooperate and to compete. [ … ] They want our stuff. They want our content. They want all that, but they don’t love us.”

For the Kent Messenger, 40% of readers come from social media, and 80% of that is from Facebook. However, [editorial director] Ian Carter said, “We’re trying to be a bit smarter about looking at the value of the audience, and value of the story, and that Facebook audience is definitely the least inclined to pay for content, and the least interested in the longer reads, and very much interested in clicking on something because it catches their attention for two seconds.”

Etelä-Suomen Sanomat’s managing editor, Hanna Myyra, said Facebook accounts for a significant amount of traffic to the newspaper’s articles, but it serves primarily as a distribution tool, rather than a space for engaging with readers, which can limit relationship-building. She said, “So I think that’s part of the problem. Then the discussions go to other websites and other platforms.”

For Westfalenpost, Facebook is an important source of story ideas and offers opportunities to connect with people as potential readers and sources. In particular, Facebook groups serve as outlets to distribute stories and connect with niche groups of readers. As Anne Krum describes, “If you look to decades before, journalists just went into the bar in the evening. That time is mostly over. And now you are in Facebook groups or others to see what happens.”

Ouest-France’s Vincent Jarnigon said Facebook serves two functions for his organization: informing people and identifying stories within the community. Social media editors for the local departments also invite user-generated content:

“We ask people to send us their best shots of fields covered in snow. And this creates the link with the Facebook community. Another example is a documentary film about the local football team, the Stade Rennais. We invited our community to watch this film at the movies on Sunday; it was presented by a journalist and the director was there as well. There was a good response from the community, with 400 people there. They had to turn some people away because of lack of space. We know that Facebook drags in quite a lot of people.

— Iliffe Media, the publisher of the Kent Examiner in the U.K., is actually testing micropayments at some of its publications.

The micropayment strategy asks readers to pay 20 pence from a digital wallet for selected articles and multimedia content, with a cap of 60 pence for access to all online exclusives. Ian Carter, Iliffe’s editorial director, said of the strategy, which was implemented in the autumn of 2019: “In terms of the number of people who have signed up and deposited money with us, it’s slightly higher than we thought. But the way the system works, people effectively bank their money and they draw down on it and spend on each story. So, although people are depositing money, the trick is to actually get them to actually spend it once they’ve deposited it. [ … ] So it’s a real learning curve for us. It’s really making us think about what people actually want to read, and what they want to spend money on.”

Iliffe Media also found that the content people were willing to pay for wasn’t necessarily what they predicted.

[Editorial director] Carter said readers want in-depth long reads and investigative journalism, or the “real bread-and-butter stuff that maybe we’ve stopped doing over the years.”

Similarly, [Iliffe audience development officer Fisher] noted that it is not the “big, juicy murder cases” that have drawn paid readers; it is the more standard local-news fare, such as public court records, planning applications, “consumer news” (for example, new shops and restaurant openings), and photo galleries showing families enjoying their communities. He said he keeps a daily log of the number of new subscribers gained, how much they’ve paid, and the types of stories they’ve purchased, which he shares with Iliffe editors to decide what they should define as “premium” on their sites. In just four months, Iliffe Media had drawn more than 1,600 digital subscriptions. Fisher said:

“You get smarter about what works and what people are willing to pay for. And the times of day, the days of the week. So it’s a growing trend, and it’s actually just saying to our teams, ‘Look, I know you got that Facebook comment, but it’s the vocal minority. There’s a silent majority who are actually paying for our work.'”

— Editors grapple with the fact that audiences eat up crime news, which has long been a staple of local news because it attracts eyeballs — but also convinces people there’s much more crime in their communities than there actually is.

Etelä-Suomen Sanomat’s Hanna Myyra said that although her team follows analytics closely, they are not driven by metrics. Readers may be drawn to crime and accident stories, but “it’s not what they mainly want and need. They want something that makes them cleverer and wiser and better people. They want something that is meaningful. So, if we just look at figures, I think we would just go wrong. I think we might lose our credibility for that.”

Read the full report here.

POSTED     Sept. 24, 2020, 2:23 p.m.
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