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Why a Corona-crisis in local media affects us all, and how it can be prevented

Our recent work with Nesta’s Future News Pilot Fund has highlighted again how crucial local news is, why it must have a viable future for all of our sakes, and why that future lies in forming a new relationship with consumers, starting now.

Mark Wilson

Managing Partner & CEO

Back in January last year, I wrote a series of articles that collectively represented a ‘manifesto’ for content companies. At its heart, the manifesto was built upon the need for publishers and other content companies to restore an honest value exchange between content creator and content consumer by focusing on building a product that people want, charging everyone for it, and building a payment habit.

Nesta step in for local media.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been involved in a programme funded by Nesta’s Future News Pilot Fund that is focused on building a sustainable future for news, and in particular local public interest journalism. We’ve designed and are currently piloting a repeatable programme that uses Axate’s casual payments platform to enable local publishers to restore a direct value exchange with their consumers.

For obvious reasons, this programme has taken on a critical new importance in recent weeks and I think it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why in a little more detail.

The importance of reliable, timely, accurate local news has probably never been more important than it is right now. While the mainstream media is presenting (and in the most unfortunate cases, sensationalising) the global and national impact of Coronavirus, we all *live* locally. What’s going on in schools, what council services are affected, what time shops are open, what GPs and chemists’ hours are, what local assistance is available for vulnerable people… suddenly micro-scale issues are critical concerns.

I’ve been so impressed by the commitment and passion the local editorial teams we meet show for their product, the stories they write and the communities they serve. They work bloody hard to do what they do, they genuinely care about how well they do it, and they’re full of great ideas about ways to do more and do it better.

A double-edged sword.

Most of the news organisations that employ these journalists are dependent on two revenue sources: advertising and to a lesser degree a cover price for their printed product. At a digital level, advertising for most is the only game in town.

I’ve already heard from some local news sources that they have lost up to 90% of their advertising revenue. Much of that has happened in the last week or two at time of writing. That is a precipitous decline in income in an industry that is already under enormous pressure, and, for me, it highlights exactly why I wrote the manifesto pieces in the first place.

Most have simply put off addressing the problem, managing their own decline in income via a combination of reducing operational costs and shifting their product/content strategy to maximise the ever-slimmer pickings that come from advertising revenue.

No matter how poor a food source advertising has been, it has been a hard habit for many organisations to pluck up the courage to kick.

The Coronavirus crisis has just cut even those scant those supply lines, leaving many without any form of substantive digital income. Even worse, the subject that everyone needs to read about is blacklisted as a term to run ads against by almost every advertiser that still is buying ad inventory.

Add to that people going out less to buy the printed papers and the traditional income picture looks bleak.

The same problem, a new urgency.

Building a sustainable, direct way to monetise audiences was, for me, already a priority, but its importance has taken on acute new significance now. This crisis has turned a slow-burn into a blaze, and for all of our sakes, a solution needs to be found quickly.

Adding a hefty draft to those flames, no-one wants to introduce payment for content to consumers now, at a time when many consumers of local media will be struggling to make ends meet. There is an interesting option however, and it might just pave the way for a sweeping and long-lasting change to emerge across the industry.

As part of the work funded by Nesta, Axate has developed a ‘pay if you can’ option for its casual payments system. It means that each consumer can choose whether to pay or not — and remember that in most cases we are talking about a few pence per transaction.

It’s time for the truth.

I would urge every local publisher to consider an honest, transparent interchange with their consumers as the best response to the situation we find ourselves in. Tell them the truth. Tell them what the circumstances you find yourselves in are. Consider laying out the equation for them, explaining who has to be paid to make the product they value, what advertising revenue did generate and what it generates now. Be honest about the support you need from them if their local news source is to survive, then make that support easy — and optional, for now.

When things settle down and we emerge into a new reality, you can switch to a more traditional payment model as and when you choose and your consumers will be both familiar with what’s happening, and with why you’re doing it. You might just emerge with a stronger underlying business model than before and a new empathy between producer and consumer, where you can focus on making a better product for them and they will pay a fair price for something that they feel they have a genuine connection with.

Oh, and for the record, I’d urge the big media brands to do the same. Their product has not been more important in living memory, but now is not the time to consider that an opportunity to grow subscription revenues. That can come later when everyone is back on their feet and in a more secure position. Find ways to adopt the same kind of approach as I’ve recommended for the local sources and the benefits for consumers (an ability to access important news sources) and the industry as a whole (a vast network of consumers paying fairly again for quality news) will be enormous.

This really matters.

News, and local news in particular, is something we must ensure the survival of. Its value to society in the coming months will be increasingly evident, and any losses will be a crippling blow to the community it serves. Nesta has helped us take a small step forward via its funding to date, and I hope there will be more government support coming to support this critical industry.

Whether or not that support appears, publishers themselves must take steps to gain the commercial support of their consumers in fair, direct ways built on trust.

And a final message for any consumer out there who hits a ‘pay if you can’ message. Pay, if you can. We need our local journalists doing what they do if we’re all to get the information we need about the places we’ll be living in much more in the months ahead.

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