Darren Thwaites: Why our digital revolution is good news

Darren Thwaites, Editor-in-Chief for Trinity Mirror North East, publishers of the Journal, Chronicle and Sunday Sun, on the newspapers' fightback

The newsroom at the Chronicle and Journal in Newcastle
The newsroom at the Chronicle and Journal in Newcastle

There comes a time when you realise your biggest threat is also your greatest opportunity.

Many in UK regional media were a little late to see it – but there’s no doubt the digital revolution that caused so much disruption is now our industry’s saviour.

Battered by economic as well as structural change throughout the last decade, with declining advertising revenues and falling newspaper sales, regional news providers faced the perfect storm.

Iconic regional titles like The Journal, Chronicle and Gazette were always going to be among the most resilient – but the future looked bleak for many.

Costs were cut in line with falling revenues and news teams worked harder than ever, still determined to give readers a brilliant service.

Some newsrooms, like the Gazette in Teesside, embraced the revolution quite early. Back in 2006-07, an innovative launch of postcode sites fed by an army of bloggers helped the Middlesbrough team to be twice crowned best in Britain.

For a provincial newsroom, it was quite an achievement, beating off the likes of the BBC, Telegraph and Channel 4. But the audience growth of these fledgling sites showed what could be delivered with the right focus and direction.

Many other newsrooms did all they could to defend print against falling sales but, in effect, they only stifled digital growth – holding content back from the web and allowing readers to form new habits elsewhere.

Most centres made some digital progress but no team truly cracked it.

Then in April last year, Trinity Mirror’s newsrooms in Teesside and Newcastle were chosen to lead a pioneering restructure, finally and unreservedly putting digital publishing at the very centre of the editorial operation.

The results have been truly astounding. Almost overnight, the rate of digital audience growth doubled.

Figures just released for the second half of 2014 show Newcastle and Teesside as the second and third fastest growing regional newspaper sites in the UK.

ChronicleLive
ChronicleLive

ChronicleLive recorded 155,831 daily users at a staggering year-on-year growth rate of 173%. GazetteLive, in Teesside, reached 72,230 daily users at a growth rate of 117%. Only the Manchester Evening News, buoyed by a global football following, achieved faster growth.

Both North East centres are now massively out-performing their peers in similar-sized city regions. ChronicleLive hits the big numbers across Tyneside, Durham and Northumberland with up-to-the-minute news, sport and entertainment coverage, while The Journal is successfully targeting digital growth among business users, doubling page impressions year-on-year.

Interestingly, newspaper sales decline also slowed and all four Trinity Mirror titles in the North East performed better against their peers in the second half of 2014. Both The Journal and Chronicle were shortlisted for the Press Gazette award for UK regional newspaper of the year, the industry’s most prized accolade. Our digital focus had clearly not harmed our traditional newspaper output.

But the most obvious outcome of our digital revolution is simply that our stories are now reaching bigger audiences than for decades.

Indeed, over the course of a month, both Newcastle and Teesside can claim more readers than at any point in their history.

It means that after years of uncertainty, an industry built on audience is showing audience growth. Our iconic newspaper brands are arguably more relevant today than they’ve ever been. We’re very much back in business.

So what changed in 2014 to deliver such a massive turnaround?

Quite simply, we’re providing readers with what they want, when they want it and on the platform of their choosing.

We’re using real-time analysis to make sure we deliver the right content at the right time. We cover events as they happen, breaking news instantly.

We publish more stories on subjects that engage the most interest and we plan ahead to much greater effect.

We can choose different ways to tell stories – it’s no longer just about words and pictures. Videos, live blogs, polls, interactive quizzes and shareable graphics are all part of the daily mix.

We’ve brought new people into our business to ensure we have leading-edge knowledge around social media and search engine optimisation.

Understanding what audiences want at different times of day has been critical. A live blog with traffic and travel information serves mobile users every morning.

The desktop audience peaks at midday as office workers browse our sites for fresh, relevant stories. In the evening, we get a massive spike through social media referrals, with readers often accessing longer reads on iPads and tablet devices.

On the print side, we now have a dedicated team of talented, experienced journalists to build newspapers from a rich feed of content through the day. At the heart of it all remain our traditional brand values of trust, authority and integrity.

Even in a digital world, there’s huge interest in what we choose to put on our front pages.

The Journal’s memorable challenge to Prime Minister David Cameron after the Scottish Referendum had far more influence than it would have had in a purely print world. Likewise, The Chronicle’s widely-acclaimed front page plea to Mike Ashley brought worldwide attention to an issue that might have been confined to our doorstep.

The challenge most often levelled in the face of our positivity, of course, is where’s the money?

Our online content is free to access so our model is driven by offering advertisers access to audiences. But that’s always been the case, with most revenues in regional media traditionally based on advertising.

And there’s plenty of cake to get at. Online advertising spend easily eclipses TV and print. Clever digital advertising delivers results.

Newspapers are brilliant for raising local brand awareness, while online advertising can take you right to point of purchase in a single click.

In a world of multiple options, we’re able to help advertisers target the audience they really need. Some of our targeted campaigns have demonstrated click-through rates at 40 or 50 times the industry average.

It’s no surprise then that we’re seeing growth in digital advertising revenues as our audience and expertise develops.

We’re helping readers find content and we’re helping advertisers reach customers.

So where does the traditional newspaper sit in this brave new world?

Well, for many of you reading this article right now, it probably sits in your lap or is spread out on the kitchen table. We’re confident that our real, authentic ink editions will live long in the future and not become a relic of the past.

Good newspapers continue to bring the best of everything together in one place. They entertain and surprise, bringing you stories you didn’t even know you were looking for.

They’ll never deliver live breaking news as well as web and mobile platforms. But they remain an enjoyable ritual for many. Time spent with a newspaper is “me” time, away from day-to-day pressures.

Those who question why anyone would buy a newspaper when they can read stories for free online might ask the same of Starbucks. Why would anyone pay £2 for a coffee when you could just stick the kettle on?

It’s a ritual, an enjoyable experience, a relaxing diversion. Just like a newspaper (only more expensive!)

This year will mark my 10th anniversary as an editor in the North East. And as I reflect on a decade of tumultuous change, I can look to the future with optimism.

There’s a brilliant opportunity to grasp for regional media... and we’re at the front of the queue.

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