More Readers, Fewer Ads: Britain’s Local Newspapers Are Struggling

LONDON — Normally, when Michael Purton has a question for one of his reporters about a story, he shouts it across the newsroom. An answer usually follows within a few seconds.

Now, it’s just him sitting at his desk with a cup of green tea. Shouting across the room has been replaced by video calls and WhatsApp messages.

“It’s surreal. I’m the only one here,” said Mr. Purton, the editor of The Worcester News, a daily that serves a city of 100,000 in the Midlands region of England. “I’m sitting here now, looking at a bank of empty desks where reporters once sat.”

Seven of his staff members, the ones who cover sports and entertainment, have been placed on furlough. The rest are working from home, reporting on the coronavirus and any other news in their community. Mr. Purton comes into the office occasionally because it’s hard to focus at home with his 3-year-old child underfoot.

Up and down Britain, local newspapers are struggling. Hundreds of journalists have been put on leave. More than 50 small and regional publications have temporarily suspended producing their print or online products. For those still printing, some communities are depending on volunteers to deliver newspapers.

For many, cash has all but stopped coming in. With most retailers shuttered, advertising revenues have dwindled to near zero for many publications, leaving the print copies a skeleton of what they used to be. And in Britain, where home delivery subscriptions are less common than in the United States, newspapers rely more heavily on street sales — and many newsstands and other stores are closed. Hardly anyone is commuting to work, so there’s no need to grab a paper on the way.

There is no doubt that readers are hungry for local news during the pandemic — traffic to the newspapers’ websites is higher than normal — but relatively few have paywalls to collect digital subscriptions.

The crisis has accelerated trends — the gradual loss of advertising and the migration of readers online — that have challenged the industry for decades. But now they are hitting Britain’s small and regional papers especially hard, some experts said.

“These are all things that would be happening over the long term at some point,” said Douglas McCabe, the chief operating executive of Enders Analysis, a research firm that focuses on the media industry.

Managing such a structural change in such a short amount of time, he said, “is impossible.”

Newsquest, which owns 165 publications, including The Worcester News, has begun looking to the future by experimenting with online subscriptions and a “soft paywall” that goes into effect after a reader has read 40 articles in a 30-day period, said Henry Faure Walker, its chief executive.

“We took the decision that it’s important to accelerate plans for digital subscriptions to develop another revenue stream for us,” Mr. Faure Walker said.

This added revenue, however, won’t be enough to sustain the publications during the pandemic. Newsquest has already furloughed about one-third of its 2,500 employees.

Ultimately, Mr. Faure Walker said, advertising remains critical.

“Long term, we still believe that advertising will be the largest and most important revenue stream for local news brands,” he said.

The economic calamity facing publishers has not gone unnoticed by the government. On Thursday, the government announced it would scrap a tax on e-books and e-newspapers in an effort to help both publishers and readers.

And it recently announced a three-month advertising campaign to support the National Health Service that will inject up to 35 million pounds (more than $43 million) into publishers across the country.

“Newspapers are at heart of the British media and essential to its vibrant mix,” Oliver Dowden, the secretary for digital, culture, media and sport, wrote in a column in The Times of London. “People across the country are rising to the coronavirus challenge and I suggest we all add one small thing to our to-do list: buy a paper.”

While experts and publishers say the advertising campaign is a welcome influx of revenue, few expect it to save the industry. “The amount falling out of the industry is measured in the hundreds of millions of pounds,” said Mr. McCabe, the analyst. “The gap is too big. A lot of these businesses have big fixed costs. You can’t just stop printing. That’s also how you make your money.”

The government’s ad money is also failing to reach many small, independent, very local news organizations, many of them online. “So far, we haven’t had any government support whatsoever,” said Emma Meese, the director of the Independent Community News Network, an organization that represents 107 publications.

Many of the small news organizations represented by her group will die without outside help, she said. “The U.K. is going to be left with so many more news black holes than it’s already got,” she said.

In response to her concerns about the ads, a government spokesman, Sam Cox, said the campaign would appear in roughly 600 titles acros
s the country.

In Wales, Alan Evans is still publishing local news for his community in Llanelli Online, an independent web-only publication. He hasn’t been able to pay his three-person staff, he said, but said he would carry on as long as he could.

He started his publication in 2017 after he left a career in the newspaper industry because he did not believe it was serving the community. In the beginning, it was just him on a laptop in the house with his wife and children.

He said any advertising money had dwindled to zero: “No businesses are willing to part with cash,” Mr. Evans said.

“Financially we are in a bad position, we always have been. We are used to that, but it’s not getting better any time soon,” Mr. Evans said.

Still, for most, the routines of the business continue.

“We’re still getting a newspaper out every day,” Mr. Purton, the editor in Worcester, said. And online, he added, “We’ve seen a spike in readers. It’s been a positive in some ways.”

He’s inspired by a sister publication of the Worcester News, the Berrow’s Worcester Journal, a weekly that claims that it is the oldest newspaper in the world, dating back to 1690.

“It has constantly had to change how it operates,” Mr. Purton said. “I don’t see any reason why we won’t survive this as well.”

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