Filton Voice

Let me tell you a story (not a very thrilling story, but it’s short!)

There was once a town which had a successful grocery shop - well-established and situated at the top of the hill. In recent years it had seen some decline, but it was still profitable.

The shop sold a wide variety of products and charged a reasonable price for them. Its staff were friendly and familiar.

Some time later the owner opened a shop at the bottom of the hill that was within easy reach of the houses.

This shop at the bottom of the hill offered the same goods as the original shop but gave them away for free. Its staff were a little cold and none of the townsfolk knew much about them.

Over time the townsfolk realised that, with money being tight, although they wanted to support the shop at the top of the hill, it seemed a bit daft when they could get the same things at the bottom of the hill for free, and without having to make that difficult journey. There was a delivery van but it only serviced certain streets.

As the months went on, sales declined at the top of the hill, which meant the owner was struggling to buy supplies and pay rent and wages for both shops.

Eventually both closed down and they didn’t live happily ever after.

Not the best analogy in the world, and maybe simplistic, but that’s how I see the madness that is the digital/print argument.

For years now we have been giving our material away for free and allowing it to be shared on social media. Yet the business model is based on an operation in which we ask people to pay for it despite it being readily available all over the place.

It has always struck me that if the digital business model worked there would not be a compelling argument to keep print. Why would you? Big overheads, big hassle, big staff needed.

The fact is that for now the digital model may work to some extent but it doesn’t work properly. It’s a bit like a clock which runs constantly fast: the mechanism is operating but in terms of doing the jobs it’s intended for it might as well have stopped.

We have seen so many different attempts at creating a working solution for digital in news, but it usually boils down to giving away material for free or paying lip-service to paywalls.

Paywalls are fine for the likes of the Sunday Times, perhaps, when the content, by definition, passes a very strong ‘interest’ threshold.

In regional news it doesn’t work that way. A lot of the material is simply too niche or parochial.

I may be interested in potholes near my home but potholes on the other side of town might as well be hundreds of miles away.

In the story above I make the point that the price charged at the top of the hill (print) is reasonable, although prices seem to be creeping up.

And when you factor in that people have to actually make an effort to pick up a paper the problem is compounded.

In our hyperlocal model, the Voice series, we have tried to address this problem. Our news magazine is free and it is hand-delivered to every home in a particular area.

To return to the analogy, we have opened up a smaller shop, selling only to, say, the vegetarians, and the goods are free. To pay for it we let other small businesses which might interest vegetarians have access to our shop window/packaging for an affordable charge. We deliver to every house.

I do not say this is the answer, but it might be part of the answer. Perhaps regional journalism in itself is not enough and we now need to view ourselves as having portfolio careers, with the news service being just one part of it.

I may have this wrong, and in some ways I hope so.

In reply to the question “Are there any digital news operations which are totally self-financing without any outside support from print?” an astute, digitally savvy colleague once said: “I think there’s one in Scandinavia.”

Richard Coulter is founder and publisher of the Voice series of hyperlocal news magazines.

He will be contributing to the BBC College of Journalism’s Revival of Local Journalism conference (with the support of the Society of Editors) on Wednesday 25 June. Sessions will be available to view shortly after on College of Journalism’s YouTube channel. Highlights can be followed on the day at #localjournalism

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