Is that an early Christmas Carol of Consolidation and/or Consolation I hear in the air. As CBS/Simon and Schuster Books prepares to surrender to the breathless embrace of that ardent wooer, Rupert Murdoch (Harper Collins), the UK is entranced by the appearance of David Montgomery as the saviour of the regional press. Despite the remarks made here in “Monty’s Flagging Circus” two weeks ago, it seems only fair to warn the brave man of the possible pitfalls that lie ahead and give him any advice and guidance that may be available. Media casualties help no one, and people like me who have spent a lifetime in media should do more than hop up and down on the sidelines prophesying doom. So here goes:

Dear David (everyone, me included, seems to call you Monty without ever asking, so I will try to be more correct in future),

Congratulations on the launch of the Local Worlds business, and upon your statement re-emphasizing your belief that people will always want local news and information. I have written about your intentions since they were first rumoured, but since those statements might be seen as a bit negative, I wanted to write to you publicly to say that I wish you every success, and would like to contribute something of my own amongst the more tangible contributions of your other stakeholders. You see, in 1996 I played a role as a strategic consultant in helping Trinity, Newsquest and Northcliffe to establish a joint web branding for local content called “This is…”, and, experimentally, and based in my own offices, began work on developing a service for concentrating all of the regionals classified advertising called ADHunter, directed by Marlen Roberts of Northcliffe. A year or so later this was relaunched in Hammersmith, by a brilliant manager called Jonathan Turpin, as Fish4…Homes, Cars, Jobs etc. It still exists, owned now by Trinity Mirror. From its inception and for the next four years, I was its non-executive chairman, refereeing a board of directors comprised of the CEOs of each of the major UK local newspaper groups, who were the shareholders and content contributors. Johnston Press joined twice – but also left twice. Sometimes the CEOs did not show: how well I recollect a substitute turning up for one of them, and volunteering, just after the minutes had been signed, “My mandate for this meeting is to say “NO” “!

I rehearse this escapade on the nursery slopes of British attempts to get the media to respond to a networked world simply to say that I have some knowledge and sympathy for the world through which you are now moving. But I started this letter to offer 5 points of advice. Here they are:

1.  Investors. They are your worst enemy. Having investors who want a return and don’t mind how you get it is one thing: having investors who want results, but not results that deteriorate the quality of their other businesses is really tough. Is London Local as far as your investors are concerned? Will Trinity Mirror compete with what you do? Boards that cannot make decisions make chaos, and then, if you could get Newsquest or even Johnston, or Archant, to invest in you, compound the rivalry, suspicion and eventual stalemate.

2.  Editors are a real liability when it comes to change. They are above all committed to the “push” world. They want to select and define. But you cannot let that happen, since, online, you cannot define “local”. Do you mean my village, this town, this suburb, this county or, indeed, this region? People define local for themselves, and “pull” it to their access point. While I agree that we all want local news and information, you have to provide an interface through which they can focus – on a smartphone, or a tablet, but certainly not primarily on paper.

3.  Journalists are too expensive. Many, if not most, of your stories will cover local football , the Women’s Institute meeting or the town council. Look at the way in which excellent artificial intelligence software is now formatting and templating factual input and archived recall to create the news: a prime example is www.narrativescience.com which builds automated stories for newspapers and B2B magazines. Save your journalists for so-called investigative reporting where you can make an impact; once the editors have gone and the journalists diminished and printing severely cut back to a national centre you may come by a cost base that suits the circumstances in which you now find yourself.

4.  Relaunch as an online service. Call it LocalWorld if you like. Allow users to set their own limits, by content subject as well as geography. Make it a content experience that people will pay for and add their own content to it – and they will – not an advertising experience that delays and distracts them. Make it Local Google with no ads: and, as Google gets into predictable difficulties as a local provider, use your increasingly trusted pure content brands (I know you will use the old newspaper brands in the background to suggest this trust) for lead generation and customer referral. Get it right and you could end up with a local community presence, under the radar of Facebook. Make local a place to go for education, or to recommend (and then) buy eBooks or music if you like, but not for conventional click-through advertising. But your investors must give you time to sort this.

5.  Watch the winners and losers. At the moment Axel Springer and Schibsted are gaining ground with a pure digital classifieds play. Could work for you, but Trinity wouldn’t like it. Keep content and classifieds apart though – they represent different channels in a networked world. The terror to be avoided at all costs is trying to drag the newspaper online and make it work in trad business model terms. Time to turn off the life support systems: people do want local news – but they want it on their own terms.

Oh, yes. And keep having lunch with that nice Ashley Highfield chap over at Johnston Press. When you get a technology focus which does for local news what his iPlayer did for Broadcast television, then you and he will want to proliferate it as widely as you can across the localities of Britain, and shared tech investment makes more sense than competing standards. All this can be done, but not of course if the business plan is to simply cut costs and reheat the margins of existing newspapers ahead of their eventual obliteration. The newspaper at Manassas Junction shuttered last week, despite being saved by Warren Buffet, no less. Lets make local work, but lets make it work on the terms that local people want.

Best wishes for your new venture.

David Worlock

 

 

 

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