It’s the worst kept secret in journalism that regional publishers in the UK are in trouble. Circulations and ad revenue are tumbling and regional publishers are gambling on taking costs out fast enough to help ease them across to digital-first publishing, a strategy we’ve previously argued is folly.

So what can regional publishers do to stay relevant, serve their local communities and be profitable? There are examples in the UK of publishers – like Archant – who are focused on diversification into service provision. 

Its chief executive Jeff Henry has told TheMediaBriefing why doing so is a good decision both for the company and the community it serves:

“For us, it’s an opportunity for us to diversify with paid revenues from consumers in the area. Providing broadband to rural communities where we’re well-established, a major player in those communities. It was just a natural fit for us.” 

But what else can regional publishers do to ensure sustainability in the face of changing audience demand? Speaking at news:rewired in London yesterday, representatives from a variety of regional publications and publishers discussed how they’ve developed new models in local media.

New models of funding

Crowdfunding has been tried by publications before to various degrees of success. While Amsterdam-based De Correspondent has gone from strength to strength having just hit 40,000 members, a similar attempt funded in part by the Guardian shut its doors earlier this year.

But the idea of membership is one that will be perenially popular, and is looking like it will be increasingly vital for publishers who are relying on a loyal audience for sustainability. 

Alon Aviram is co-founder of The Bristol Cable, a publisher operated by a cooperative of 500 members, though they’re looking to grow that number. He argues that fostering a sense of membership is vital to achieving that goal:

“It’s really about enfranchising people to feel first of all that they can contribute, that they’ve got ownership of the Cooperative and that it’s actually meaningful. We’re trying to flip the pyramid of ownership, essentially.”

The print product – which currently ships 10,000 copies per edition – is a vital part of that strategy.

Aviram believes that the error made by more traditionally funded regional publishers is trying to emulate the nationals:

“What we identified when we started off was essentially a lot of local media is just replicating their larger counterparts in the sense that they’re advertising based and based heavily on press releases, on sponsored content, and because their business model relied on advertising [that] restricts the type of content that you can publish, makes it less engaging for your readership.” 

And recent research into the hunger for good journalism suggests that aim is correct:

In terms of sustainability, though, The Bristol Cable requires a five-fold growth in the members of its cooperative. In the meantime, however, it has received a $60,000 grant from a US-based foundation that has the aim of funding investigative journalism. Aviram says:

“The way we envisage us moving forward is we just need to increase the membership. At the moment we’re on 500 members paying an average of £2.50 a month. If we can move up to 2,500 by 2017 we will essentially, on a skeleton framework, be sustainable.”

Rediscovering a specialty

Greg Hadfield is the editorial director for Brighton & Hove Independent. He shares the sentiment that it’s focusing on quality journalism over ‘churnalism’ that can be the salvation for local media:

“What I’ve learned over the last three years when I’ve been working for Brighton & Hove Independent which… sold five months ago to Johnston Press… is a modest proposition: How can we help create and sustain a network of 100 free weekly quality newspapers in five years[].

“Brighton and Hove Independent set up four years ago. We turned it from churnalism and press release into what I hope would be much more of a local newpaper.”

He cites the paper’s profitability as a reason for its acquisition by Johnston Press – which he notes is the first time Johnston Press has acquired a local publisher in a decade. However, with a circulation of just uder 14,000 at time of acquisition and a total staff headcount of four people, it was still a relatively small operation. So instead of focusing on scale, he instead argues that sustainability as a local publisher is dependent on rediscovering the inherent value that a smaller publisher can provide:

“How do we disrupt big media? First of all it’s by showing we can be profitable at lower cost by producing a better product. What services can be offered?

“You can then create content that’s syndicated, whether there’s the great columnist that could be syndicated in some sort of package, in what could be some sort of franchise model.”

Embracing community

Andrea Ianuzzi is editor for AGL Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso. As the publisher of the longest running newspaper in Europe – formed in 1664 – they have a reputation and an extremely venerable brand. But, he argues, that isn’t enough to be sustainable in an increasingly digital world.

Instead, he argues that focusing on community – a process he calls ‘giving the communities the keys to our own doors’ – is a vital first step on the road to sustainability:

“Six months ago we decided to create a social title; this is not a website, it’s only a social title, to share our look and stories to a wider audience. We called it ‘The Italian Chronicle’, and we created a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, an Instagram account and a Pinterest account.”

Building a community is a hard task, and when that community is distributed across a variety of social platform is more difficult still. It required thought around which platforms should be used – ultimately they decided against handing over the reins of the Facebook page to the community because of questions of accountability. 

But the experiment, which is ongoing despite only originally being planned for a July – September run, puts AGL in a good position to take advantage of growing mobile audiences:

“We think that social journalism is no more a matter of geographic vicinity or interest proximity, but a question of emotional proximity. We started with 100 followers and in one month we had 1500 followers 30,000 likes to the photos.”

Sustainability for regional publishers remains a difficult goal. But endeavours like those described above demonstrate that there is no single path to success – even though a few will likely end in failure.