The death of local newspapers has been monotonously foretold over and over again for the past 20 years, yet thankfully most of them are still with us.
This week the pundits of doom claim to have further evidence that the end is nigh with the news that Google is about to move into the local advertising market by buying Groupon for a guessed-at $5 billion.
Groupon has expanded into the UK, where it has launched community shopping websites in more than 30 UK towns and cities, including Bournemouth and Southampton. The idea is to persuade local advertisers to offer special online deals to Groupon members.
It’s tempting to dismiss the sites as yet more advertising piffle and think that no-one sensible would waste their time with them. Newspaper managements took this attitude 25 years ago when free newspapers first appeared and for many this proved a costly error.
They didn’t make the same mistake when the internet arrived. They saw the threat almost immediately and have been adapting constantly as technology has advanced. Their websites are superb, frequently beating TV, radio and their own print versions with breaking news stories. Many of them also broadcast local news via mobiles, Facebook and Twitter.
Their circulations are holding up reasonably well in the circumstances. Take Salisbury, where (assuming three readers per copy sold) the Journal is read by around 72,000 people a week, an amazing figure for a title that first hit the streets nearly 300 years ago.
An estimated 85,000 still read the Daily Echo in Bournemouth six days a week and 103,000 read the Southern Daily Echo in Southampton. The News in Portsmouth boasts an even higher figure.
It’s true that these titles have lost thousands of readers in a relentless 30-year decline, and that many advertisers have deserted them, but they are still phenomenally strong brands. Even after a decade of job cuts they continue to put out an unrivalled news service – and their owners still make handsome profits.
There are limits to how long this can go on, and they would be mad to think they can carry on sacking journalists indefinitely without destroying their own USP. They would be equally mad to ignore the latest threat from Groupon, and they won’t.
It’s easy to dismiss local newspapers as dinosaurs, but dinosaurs died out because they failed to adapt to a changing environment. Our newspapers have transformed themselves into multi-media miracles.