Adapt to the new media environment or be damned

I’ve lost
count of the times I have heard editors talking about their newspapers,
describing changes they are going to introduce as “an evolution rather
than a revolution”.

Newspapers up and down the country make slight tweaks here and there in a vain bid to arrest sales declines.

I have even done it myself when we relaunched the Evening News more than two years ago.

Before
we could make sensible decisions on what to do next with the paper, we
felt we first needed a much clearer understanding of the media
landscape in Norwich.

We wanted a seminal piece of research into
the news and information needs of the people of the city, to help us
understand the huge changes that have taken place, which our product
didn’t necessarily reflect.

So, exactly a year ago, we
commissioned the Future Foundation to talk to people in Norwich about
the way they currently access news and information and how their needs
are likely to change over the next few years.

What we learned
convinced me that the time had come to dump Charles Darwin in favour of
Che Guevara: no more evolution – it was now time for a revolution.

The reasons newspapers are in decline are myriad and well chronicled.

However,
there is a basic fact at the core of it all: they do not reflect the
huge changes that have taken place in the marketplace.

We now had a good understanding of what people wanted.We spent the next nine months working out how to give it to them.

There were one or two very important threads to take out of the research, which drove our thinking.

One was the notion of the “middleclassification”

of
society in general and of Norwich in particular. Essentially, there has
been a huge upmarket swing across Britain and even more so in Norwich –
and the Evening News had to reflect this.

Something else that
came out loud and clear was that people do not expect their newspaper
to break news any more. As journalists we become very precious about
our art but the people that really count, the readers, do not expect
news to be broken by newspapers, which, by definition, are outdated by
other media by the time they come out. TV, radio and the internet can
break news within seconds of it happening – we can’t, and while readers
understand that, people making newspapers find it harder to stomach.

Of
course, locally breaking news stories will still be our meat and drink
– but it’s something which is more important to us as journalists than
it is to readers. How many readers do you hear saying: “God, this must
be good – it’s got a little red box with ‘exclusive’

on the front page lead”?

The
Americans realised this some time ago and now use their websites to
break a lot of news, while using the print product to be more
reflective, analytical and entertaining. That’s not turkeys voting for
Christmas either.

Many of the models show that successful
newspaper websites drive good sales figures for print products. We had
to make that conversion on the road to Damascus and face the dilemma of
how our print and online offerings interact.

The research also
showed us that there is a lost generation out there – people who are
interested in news and information, but not in a printed format.

It would be hugely complacent of us to expect them to convert to our products in time.

First
and foremost, we overhauled the design to make it much more
contemporary and cleaner looking. We also now provide longer reads,
better analysis and entertainment. From now on, every word has to fight
for its place in the paper.

We also decided to drop our late
edition and bring the early edition forward by 45 minutes. Any
late-breaking news is broken on our website. The money we saved on the
press has gone into thicker, whiter newsprint to do our wonderful new
designs justice.

We have also had a radical overhaul of our
distribution system as the research showed that no matter how much
someone likes your brand, they won’t go out of their way to get it.

Then
came the anxious bit. We needed reassuring that our new, modern design
wasn’t going to alienate our older, more traditional readers.

Back
came the Future Foundation to test a dummy in the marketplace and the
results were remarkably positive – especially among the older,
six-day-aweek readers. In fact, the researchers said it was the most
positive endorsement of a relaunched brand they had ever encountered.
Music to our ears.

So, has the relaunch been a success?

Very
early days yet, but figures for the first week or so indicate that not
only have we halted the sales decline, we look like recording a
year-on-year plus for the first time since Noah was a lad.

It
would be great, but maybe a little bit optimistic, to think we can
carry on all year in that vein, but, whatever happens, I am convinced
that what we have done was vital to secure the longterm future of our
paper – and you can’t say fairer than that!

David Bourn is editor of the Evening News, Norwich.

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