LEADERS IN the media industry have forecast a positive outlook for the future of regional newspapers where the printed form will coexist alongside digital editions - as long as the opportunities presented by new technologies are exploited.
That was the central message put forward at a conference which addressed the future of the regional press in Ireland. Titled Local Press Trusted 24/7, the conference which was held in DCU was organised by the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) Local and Regional and the Regional Newspapers and Printers Association of Ireland (RNPAI). Per Axel Koch, managing director of Polaris Media, a company that owns a suite of regional titles in Norway, explained they now referred to their newspaper as ' media houses'. Their titles had embraced new technologies including laptops, tablets and now mobile phones. The company was experiencing only a slight fall in sales of the printed form. However, overall more people were accessing their content than ever before as there had been a growing rise in the numbers accessing the titles via devices using the internet. With the economy in Norway booming, he explained that sales overall had remained very healthy. "We still like newspapers but the future is all digital platforms working in combination," he said. Ashley Highfield, chief executive officer of Johnston Press, said embracing the digital form was key to their strategy for their regional titles - but he too predicted that the printed form would remain for at least another 50 years. "The web was meant to kill off newspapers, but it didn't, no more than Kindle killed books," he said. The sharp decline in classifieds advertising in their papers, while challenging for the company, had proved that people were buying their local title for the news content - and this was an area that could be capitalised upon. The company plans to re-launch their websites and to add to the mobile phone Apps they have already created for some titles. Three million people have downloaded their Apps, and of these two million were net new users of Johnston Press titles. Having journalists in communities remained key for the company as they were the "unique selling point". As well as relaunching their websites, and giving them a "fresher look", the company is looking at increasing the cover price of their papers. Mr Highfield said the ratio of advertising revenue to circulation revenue was traditionally four or five to one, but this had now fallen to two to one. He said people would be happy to keep investing in their local titles, despite the price increase, as long as they saw an investment in the quality of the product, which they were working on. He cited the example of the Oxford Times where the price went up from 85p to £1.30 - and circulation actually went up as a result. Mr Highfield did not believe paywalls on websites - where people pay to access content - was a workable strategy, and instead saw scope for more advertising revenue online. Mr Highfield said the industry had not yet fully embraced the "social" concept of the internet with many just putting their paper up online once a week. He said media companies needed to embrace the idea of the "digital campfire" where content would be updated far more frequently and in different ways. "We need to see ourselves as curators and aggregators - and not just broadcasters," he told the conference. Mr Highfield predicted that the industry had a window of three to five years to make the transition to digitalisation. By 2020 Johnston Press envisions that 50% of revenue would come from the digital platform with the other 50% remaining from the printed form. Joe Flaherty, president of the Regional Newspapers and Printers Association of Ireland, also predicted that newspapers would survive the challenge provided by "the beast that is the internet", He pointed out that the printed form had seen off the challenges of cinema, radio and TV in the past. And he said regional newspapers would remain "unashamedly parochial" as that was their selling point. He said the industry had seen a "tremendous upheaval" over the last four to five years with it being a "weathervane" of the Irish economy. Mr Flaherty stated that the majority of titles have adopted well to the new challenges and had begun to find "stable ground" again. All, he said, have been "intensifying their digital presence" and predicted that a solution would be found as to how best to present content online. Professor Steven Knowles, chair of the BA Journalism program in DCU, said people would always remain "ownership" of their local papers in the same way as they feel a sense of ownership of their local GAA team, and predicted that for this reason the future for regional titles was far brighter than the future outlook for national daily papers. He said in the United States more than 300 newspaper titles had successfully introduced paywalls on their websites, and he envisioned this model as being the way forward here too. Joe Webb, chief executive of Independent News, said he had taken many positives out of the conference. He predicted that the printed form of the newspaper could actually be entering a "renaissance period". Mr Webb said the success of newspapers in the US, who had introduced paywalls on their websites, marked "not a panacea but a crossing of the rubicon". "This is something that is worth paying for and I agree with that. We will have to service people on all the different platforms that they want to receive content, but we have got to get them to pay. We need to convince them to pay for content we produce. I am sick of having to come from a defensive position - we must get on the front foot and fight for this business," he said. Mr Webb added that there was a big challenge ahead for the industry but pointed to the rich heritage that newspapers have in Ireland. He pointed out that the industry had seen off many threats in the past and predicted, once the economy turned, so too would the fortunes of the regional press. When it came to the question as to how best to deal with the challenges of the web, he said "we will crack whatever model we need to come up with". Lawrie Procter, managing director of Mediaforce - an advertising agency - told the conference that regional newspapers would remain a key platform for companies looking to push their brands, as local titles had the trust of the community. He referred to research which showed that over 470,000 regional papers are sold in Ireland per week, with people keeping them in their house for an average retention time of 5.9 days. "Brands want a different type of conversation with consumers. And one of the things they are looking for is trust. Regionals have that in spades, you can't buy that kind of heritage and sense of community. They are the go-to-point when something goes wrong in that community. When the council does something wrong people still go to their local paper. Social media is not going to be able to investigate that properly. That is what we bring to the party and what nobody else does. We are serving a proper community whereas they are serving communities of interest," he stated.