Professor of journalism and Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade has predicted that 2015 will see a number of regional newspapers moving their content wholly online, as print’s commercial viability continues to wither on the vine.
It’s a trend that seems as unavoidable as Canute’s incoming tide: Greenslade notes that several regional weeklies have already made the move and it seems not only possible but probable that regional dailies will take the plunge any time soon as well. For example, the former editor of the Scotsman has recently suggested that it’s “time to put the Scotsman out of its misery” – barely ciphered code for “move it online completely.”
But at what point does it make no further sense to go on publishing in print? Greenslade’s answer is hard to refute:
“The answer could not be more straightforward: when it is no longer profitable to do so. Decisions on whether to say “stop the presses” for the final time are purely commercial and print advertising revenue, although in decline, means that printing newspapers remains viable.”
Those last four words are the crux of the matter. They’re viable at present, but that viability appears to be dwindling relentlessly, as circulation numbers for regional dailies continue to dry up. The Scotsman’s average sales for the last six months of 2014, for example, were a comparatively paltry 26,283 – a minute fraction of its Edinburgh heartland and a vanishing small splinter of its wider circulation area.
Johnston Press, which owns the paper, clearly wouldn’t be continuing to buy newsprint and ink and shelling out for the costs of printing and distribution if there wasn’t some profit to be had.
The writing, though, is starting to appear on the proverbial wall. During a broadcast he took part on BBC Radio Wales; Greenslade listened to callers complain about the trashy content of their regional dailies – full of adverts, no news, too much sport, not local enough, and so on. As Greenslade wryly observes: “It struck me later that publishers may be doing long-term harm to their brands by publishing such thin gruel.”
If that continues online, people may not necessarily transfer. But Greenslade’s prediction is that the first regional daily to go wholly online will be the Birmingham Mail, which lost 20.5 per cent of its sale in the first half of 2014.