Regional Newspapers

(This is the case study i wrote based around work experiance gained at the Shropshire Star newspaper.)

How are regional newspapers such as the Shropshire star, coping in the modern, finical and journalistic times?

Introduction

On the 21st of March earlier this year, I had an email offering me a work placement at the Shropshire star.  I had nearly given up on getting a work placement in time to use as my case study, so I quickly grasped the opportunity before the offer could be withdrawn. As a resident of Shropshire I have had the paper delivered to my house for well over ten years and the main offices for the newspaper (where I would be going for the placement) are only a twenty minute walk from my house. So not only was I familiar with the papers content but I didn’t have to worry about accommodation or transport, as other people who gain work experience sometimes do. Taking this into consideration you would think I would be over joyous at achieving work experience at the Shropshire star. Despite being relieved at gaining the placement I was also disappointed at the fact that this organisation, out of all which I applied for, was the one who I got excepted into. All but one of the Newspapers, radio stations and magazines, online and print which I applied for, had involved some kind of music journalism. That is the area I would like to go into, that is the subject I am most passionate about. Because of this I had several music based case study questions lined up, but none for regular, regional news.

When I started at the Shropshire star on the 15thof April I still hadn’t thought of a question for the case study. I had a few loose idea’s but I thought my best tact would be to go there and hope a question jumped out from doing the placement itself. When I arrived at the newspaper I was shown how to log in to different areas of the computer and then given three or four stories to research and write up. I was taken aback by how I was thrown straight into work, and the workload just increased as the week went on. On Wednesday once I had settled into the flow of things I told a writer on my news desk, Katy Meaney, that I was expecting to do more sitting around and tea making, to which she replied:

“Yeah, I did that on my work experience when I was at uni, but the fact is that we can’t afford for the work experience guys to not do work, were normally overloaded as it is.”

This gave me my case study question, surly if the work load was putting pressure on the news writers to the point they had to pass it down to students on work experience, the Shropshire star would hire more reporters; unless they are feeling the snap of modern journalism.

It’s a common known fact that the major newspapers are struggling in modern times. The internet has given birth to free news and an army of amateur journalists providing an alternative source of news for the masses. This, linked with the current harsh economic situation, has put grate pressure on newspapers. The major newspapers struggles have been widely documented, but what about the independent and regional newspapers?

How are regional newspapers, such as the Shropshire star, coping in the modern, finical and journalistic times? In this case study I will try and shed some light on the survival status of British regional newspapers using my experience at the Shropshire star as a figure head, and attempt to explain if being independent in publishing has any effect on the chances of a papers endurance.

Literary review

For this case study I wanted to do most of my research from books from the university library as that is something I have not done much of yet on this course. I wanted to practise for my dissertation as I am sure their will come times when I need to burry myself in library books. However Most of the books in the Tramough library are of out of date for what I consider to be modern journalism, and I therefor had turn my attention to the Internet with E-books, Google scholar and its vast amount of websites. The demise of the written word is seen everywhere, I now read most articles and reviews, do most of my research and work and read  local to international news, online. I found it ironic that I was reading scholars and professionals defending and promoting the written word, online. I think the fact that a lot of the books at a university library are out of date tells a story of modern times in itself.

I took three books out of the library, the most useful was Newspaper Journalism: Journalism studies: Key texts written by Peter Cole and Tony Harcup. The Book was published in 2010 so it is up to date, and the two authors are based in the journalism department at the University of Sheffield; so they know what students often write about. The book focuses mainly on the survival of journalism in the modern age. It asks if newspapers will ever become “extinct”, and talks about the new definition of “Newspaper Journalism”.  The book looks at how local, national, mainstream and alternative newspapers are coping under the pressure of the digital age. Cole and Harcup conclude that not much has changed in journalism, the profession has had to adapt to significant changes time and time again and that’s what it is successfully doing now, adapting. The most useful part of the book for me was chapter 3: Beyond Fleet Street: newspapers in the regions and nations. This was the biggest bulk of written literature I could find on regional news.

Another book I took out was: Journalism Studies: the basics, written by Martin Conboy. This was actually published this year so it is as up to date as up to date can be. Conboy, alongside Cole and Harcup, works in the journalism department of Sheffield University. The similarities between the authors extend from workplace to mind-set; Conboy also arrives at the upbeat conclusion that Journalism is not dying but adapting. This conclusion comes after the chapter of the book I found most interesting: Journalism studies: Engagement with technology and industrial change. The chapter has the very agreeable view that technology brought journalism into the world, it may be the thing that takes it out.

The only other Library book I took out was: The Newspapers Handbook, written by Richard Keeble. The book was published in 2001, although much has changed since then it was interesting reading about the arrival of new technologies and what Keeble made of them. The book is a how to for newspaper writing so I did not find much of the book useful. However I found it interesting reading about some of the skills and stresses which I practised and experienced while at my work placement.

Every other bit of information I researched was off of the internet, many of the books I looked at were previews or not available in full, which is sometimes frustrating but very useful neither the less.

One book I found to be frustratingly useful was the Google book: Specialist Journalism edited by Barry Turner and Richard Orange. Large parts of the content were not available and many of them parts would have been very relevant. The Book is written by 12 different people, each a professional in their own specialist subject, from food journalism to sports reporting. Many talk of how their form of journalism is under threat by fans or passionate non-professionals willing to write for cheap. The internet has brought this threat with its abundance of amateur journalists, but many of the journalists who helped write the book agree that as long as there is journalism, there will be a need for specialist journalists.

One book I found interesting was: The regional-newspaper industry supply chain and the internet, written by Gary Graham and Alison Smart. I could only find small snippets of the book online but it was very different to most other things I looked at. Graham and Alison look at regional news from a purely business minded perspective, and what they say about their findings and implications are interesting. “Findings – The internet has led to falling advertising revenues and dwindling circulations. The companies reacted to this by developing online news services, which do not have the distribution costs of a physical product, enable the customisation of editorial and advertising content, and facilitate the co-creation of news content with consumers. Moving online has, however, not fully compensated for the losses in revenues. Readers were reluctant to pay for online content, the income from of the sale of web-based advertising space was significantly lower than for the printed form, and journalists resisted co-creation. Practical implications – Regional newspapers face problems developing an effective online news service to enable them to remain relevant in the communities they serve. The findings suggest that, although newspapers have adopted multimedia, and now have some user generated content, there is a reluctance to consider greater usage of additional forms of news production and e-tools (Graham, Smart: 2010:196 – 206)” (This is a very different view to that concluded by the Sheffield University Professors and directors.)

Other online papers that I found helpful for abstracts and information are: WHERE ELSE IS THE MONEY? A study of innovation in online business models at newspapers in Britain’s 66 cities by François Nel. This is a short 13 page research into the National newspapers, I was struggling to gain facts and figures but this helped a lot as it is just facts and figures. Paid Content Strategies for News Websites: An Empirical Study of British Newspapers’ Online Business Models by Neil Thurman & Jack Herbert and News and Journalism in the UK By Brian McNair.

Methodology

While at the Shropshire star I was given a lot of work to do, a lot of information to research and a lot of interviews to organise and execute. This hindered my data gathering, I and the other reporters were so busy that I thought I was getting in the way by asking questions. For this reason most of my research was overt observational.

Observation is a way of gathering data by watching behaviour, events, or noting physical characteristics in their natural setting. Observations can be overt (everyone knows they are being observed) or covert (no one knows they are being observed and the observer is concealed) (cdc.gov: 2008).

I did manage to get a few interviews done when out of the office and travelling to and from destinations. These interviews were very informal and I only took notes, I think this made for a relaxed, honest interview. I did however get some questions answered from some of the news desk via email. There are both advantages and disadvantages to performing Interviews via emails, people are not under the pressures of a face to face interview and they get to think about their answers more. You also already have the answers typed up so you have no chance of misinterpretation and mistakes. However you cannot push for other information on subjects that reveille themselves as interesting when you are talking to someone, and people can also just ignore an email easily.

These methods I practised gave me quantitative data, the questions I asked were open and gave room for interpretation and different examples. One question I emailed was: What benefits do you think regional newspapers and news organizations have over national?

The only Documentary data I gained was that off the internet on sites such as Paperboy: UK Newspaper Guide and Suite: British Newspapers: Who Owns What?

Findings

“One thing the UK’s provincial press shares with it’s national counterparts is a decline in circulation, certainly of paid-for titles. Another is the gloomy tone and crisis talk that have dominated so much discussion of the press in the last few years, well before the recession of 2008 – 09.” (Cole & Harcup/2010/50)

When I went to the Shropshire star I did not know what to expect. I, like everyone else who reads the news, knew that newspapers were struggling; however I did not know if this struggle would be visible or at all noticeable. I did not know if the news room would be hectic and over worked or quiet, with many people without work to be getting on with. In truth, the problems were not obvious, but they were there. All the reporters were constantly busy and had little time for small talk, but the biggest sign was the two or three empty news desks that had the capability to sit six or seven people each. I asked the senior reporter at my desk  Pam Griffin: What are the major changes you have seen at the Shropshire star since joining and do you think any of them are down to the current economic times or internet journalism? She replied:

“I started working at the Star 6 years ago. We have fewer journalists and fewer editions now. The fewer staff I think is due to economic pressures, the change in editions and in the ways we work are due to changes in management.”

The reporter who I sat next to while at the Shropshire Star, Jon Pritchard spoke of some of the problems they face while I was going to the scene of a small house fire to meet a photographer. He said that when he started, just a few years ago, their were seven paid photographers, now their are two. The two photographers who remain at the Shropshire star are constantly busy, and this means they are often late. The majority of the stories that I researched and wrote up I also had to book a photographer to go and take a picture. On two or three occasions, the photographers got so back-logged they had to miss the photo shoot altogether. Jon pointed out that Shropshire is the biggest land-locked county in England and the paper only has two photographers to cover it’s entirety. It does seem that specialist journalism is the area that has suffered most, the other layoff that has affected the reporters was that of a courtroom reporter. Jon said:

“We did have a court reporter for this stuff but we got rid of him, I’m normally the one who has to go to court now.”

I got this quote while travelling back from court. We left the news desk and travelled to court to watch a case that the newspaper was interested in. After waiting in A courtroom waiting for the trial, we found out that the case we had come to report on had been suspended to a later date, it was an hour of wasted time. Instead of having one reporter in the court and in the know, a reporter from the news desk now has to go and occupy that position part time.

“As newspapers retrench on an unprecedented scale and shed jobs in jaw-dropping numbers, one theory is that sports writers – like film reviewers, for example – might be expendable; that well-informed fans and opinionated bloggers could be drafted in to fill the void , an at minimal cost … It is a theory that is wrong on so many levels. Anyone who has spent time in cyberspace will be aware of the ignorance, spite and misinformation abroad. To subvert the famous dictum of the legendary Manchester Guardian editor, CP Scott, about fact being sacred but comment being free, the internet has made facts a little less sacred and comment rather more free.” (Spencer/01/11)

It does seem that specialist journalists such as sports reporters are in the biggest amount of danger. Some regional newspapers such as Birmingham’s Sunday mercury need sports reporters as they have grown their readership via their large sport content. But in a big city such as Birmingham there is reason for having large sport sections in their newspapers. They have two huge football teams, Aston Villa and Birmingham City and Premiership club West Brom nearby. It is also home to Edgbaston Cricket Ground were the national cricket team often play, along with the county club Warwickshire. There is much sport to write about in Birmingham. Shropshire, however is one of few counties in England without a city, it has a population of only 293,400. Over half of that population is in the Telford and Wrekin area, 162,600 and Telford’s biggest sports team is AFC Telford football club who have just been relegated to the 6th tear of English football. In other words, there is not much need for sports reporters at the Shropshire star. (Figures are mid-year estimates for 2010 from the Office for National Statistics.)

However, at the Shropshire star, not many reporters have been sacked or laid off, the news desk agreed that instead it was people leaving and not being replaced. Jon said:

“This is a stressful job and their comes a time when some people have enough of it and move on to PR or something less stressful.”

It is these people, these editors and reporters that have left over the past few years and have not been replaced which Pam believes is down to financial reasons. I could not find statistics relevant to the lose of reporters and staff but I did find an article online from a few years ago off: Hold The Front Page, a regional news, news site:

“The branch (Shropshire Branch of the National Union of Journalists)has written to the company (The Midland News Association) in protest at the plans, which it says will see the Shropshire Star reduced from seven editions to five – with the early midday paper scrapped and the Powys and South Shropshire editions being merged. Shropshire NUJ Branch chairman Tim Cook said: “Everyone in the trade knows that print media are facing tough times, but the Shropshire Star and its weeklies have so far been managing, where others are failing, to maintain their high standards. “There’s no doubt at all that this is thanks to the quality and commitment of journalists the group employs. If these valuable papers are to have a future in the county, it must be built around this quality, not undermined by getting rid of it. The union has called on the publisher to ‘see the bigger picture’, saying that the more jobs it sheds, the harder it will be to regain its vital role in Shropshire life.” (Lambourne, 1, 2011)

I cannot clarify that the number of editors was reduced but there are two things mentioned here I believe to be true. The Shropshire star has a big role in Shropshire life and the Shropshire star is managing to survive in these harsh journalistic times. Cole and Harcup broke down the UKs provincial press in a table showing how many are weekly and how many are daily, based on newspaper society figures for July 2008. In that table it showed that there are only 131 daily titles, compared with 1147 weekly titles. Since 2008 the amount of daily titles may have decreased even more, however the Shropshire Star  has remained daily, still alive and going strong. The daily readership was 49,751 in 2012, making it the fifth  biggest selling regional evening newspaper in Britain, so is remains widely read in the area.

Analysis and discussion

So why is it that the Shropshire star remains a widely read, daily, regional newspaper when other such papers have dwindled to only a weekly status or fallen from existence all together?

Coal & Harcup give an example of how regional newspapers have changed ownership over the past hundred odd years.

“Worchester post man, a news sheet publishing irregularly, in 1690, beginning regular weekly publication as the Worchester journal in 1709… Is today distributed free, has a website and is owned by a mighty transatlantic media conglomerate.”  (Cole & Harcup/2010/46-47)

I think this is one of the reasons so many small British newspapers are failing. They are being brought out by the big conglomerates of the news and publishing industry. These industries then just stop publishing a local newspaper when business is poor, as the small profit they produce has little effect on their huge companies. So I think it is the Shropshire star’s independent owners who have succeeded in fighting the detrition of the newspaper. The Midland News Association is Britain’s largest independent regional news company, it owns the biggest selling regional evening paper, the   Express & Star in Wolverhampton and the fifth biggest, the Shropshire star. The two regional papers are not a small part of a big pitcher for a huge company, they are the picture. So everything that can be done to retain their quality and readership, will be done by The Midland News Association.

I think the Shropshire star has also adapted well to the internet, I asked lead reporter Pam: Do you think the Shropshire star uses web pages/ twitter and other social and online networks to their full capabilities?

“I think we’re getting pretty good at it. We have a main website and Twitter account and staff use Twitter and Facebook to find stories and contact people.”

The Shropshire star website is up-to-date and easy to navigate. While at the Star I wrote a story that did not make it into the Shropshire star but it’s weekly, more local offspring the Shrewsbury chronicle. When I went on the website, it was clear and easy to find. Regional newspapers, like their national counterparts, are struggling. The internet is a big contributor to this struggle but I believe that in this regard it’s the regional newspapers that hold the advantage. All the big stories are reported in all the national newspapers and all the big the stories are typed and discussed on thousands of websites, but the small local stories are only discovered and written about in local newspapers.

Much of what I have seen and experienced has made me think differently to most of the literature I have read. The regional-newspaper industry supply chain and the internet, written by Gary Graham and Alison Smart said: “Regional newspapers face problems developing an effective online news service to enable them to remain relevant in the communities they serve” (Graham, Smart: 1: 2010). However I found that the Shropshire star and Express & Star’s websites to be very effective and relevant. In Specialist Journalism edited by Barry Turner and Richard Orange, many of the specialist journalist thought they were not in any kind of unique danger. But from what I saw they are the reporters under the most immediate threat. Despite sharing the views that newspapers as a hole are not in danger of extinction with Peter Cole, Tony Harcup and Martin Conboy in their respective writings; I question their analysis that newspapers are “Doing what they have always done: adapting to a changing environment” (Cole, Harcup: 2010). Under a section of the book called: A continuing need for journalism they say:

“Our newspapers may be a smaller format, they may be free, they may be referring us to other platforms run by the same publisher and using the same pool of content as is available to the newspaper, the range of content may have changed, not always for the better… It remains an easily scanned portable reading medium with large doses of serendipity. And it still depends on journalism.” (Cole, Harcup: 191: 2010)

Newspapers are adapting, but every time they need to adapt, they adapt into something worse. Printed news is being forced to change and every time it does, It gets a little more useless.

Conclusion

At the start of this study I asked: How are regional newspapers such as the Shropshire star, coping in the modern finical and journalistic times? I said I would try and answer this by using my experience at the Shropshire star and by seeing if being independent in publishing has any effect on the chances of a papers endurance. Through the literature I have read and the data I have collected, I have summarized that the life of regional newspapers is not yet nearing the end. The Shropshire Star, despite having to shred some jobs is still very healthy, and still pulling in a big readership along with its parent paper the Express & Star. Being part of an independent organization has aided this level of survival, just as being part of a larger, especially transatlantic, media conglomerates has hindered others. Many of the scholars I have researched agree that there is still a future for regional newspapers, but like all newspapers they need to adapt and change. However it is my belief that newspapers can only adapt so much before they will not be able to compete with other medias. Despite not having the facilities of national newspapers, local and regional papers can still make themselves useful online which is growing in importance, every year.

So, How are regional newspapers coping in the modern finical and journalistic times? Well, better than their national counterparts but I do fear for their long term safety.

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