It wasn’t until I met a woman in the garden of a Bath café that I really appreciated the fragility and eccentricity of newspaper reader loyalty.
“Oh, yes, I used to get the Chronicle, but then the kids grew up,” she told me.
Ok, I thought, perhaps she’s turned off by our wall-to-wall schools coverage and avalanche of First Class, Last Day, Nativity and Prom supplements.
“Once they were out of primary school, I didn’t need to keep making stuff out of papier mache,” she explained.
A thread that snaps at the slightest gust of wind. That, if we’re not careful, is pretty much what newspapers’ relationships with their readers can end up like.
As we go online for our grocery shopping, as lunch hours disappear, as factories close and as the working day lengthens, the chances of us buying a paper diminish. Especially if it’s one that comes out every day.
That conversation on a sunny morning in suburban Bath came a few years after we had taken the Chronicle from daily to weekly publication.
It was the right thing to do – and it was the right thing for the papers on my doorstep in Gloucestershire to do this week.
— Paul Wiltshire (@Paulwiltshire) October 13, 2017
Our industry’s fragile hold on its customers means that the number of daily regional titles which survive into the 2020s will be limited indeed.
Time poverty, age profile and societal changes all conspire against six-day-a-week consumption of all printed products, but especially against regional ones.
My children are 19 and 23, and have never bought a newspaper in their lives. I wonder if they ever will.
Smaller regional titles risk becoming caught in a destructive vicious circle of price rises combined with anaemic yet overblown content thrown together by teams battling to hit web targets.
Print is still where the majority of the money is, and there is some merit in Metro editor Ted Young’s arguments against it being given the last rites .
But regional print as we know it will not last forever.
Offering a weekly rather than daily product gives titles a bit more of a fighting chance.
It ought to buy editorial teams the time for more analytical pieces, for writing that really sings, and for a decent sense of proportion that genuinely sees the wood for the trees.
It would be simplistic and patronising to characterise this as nutritious, home-cooked fare in contrast to the e-number-packed fast food that keeps the Chartbeat wolf from the door.
But it is the sort of coverage that stands the greatest chance of building loyalty, of strengthening those gossamer-thin bonds with potential readers.
I’m glad that my friends at the Echo and Citizen spent the first two days of their new weekly regime getting to know their readers at mini-roadshows.
Because, as I have said before, we fear what we don’t know.
If we can build both trust and loyalty, we can start to take our readers to new places, to challenge them to think differently and to consider fresh ideas.
— Journalism at UoG (@UoGjourno) October 11, 2017
In TV interviews where I’ve been asked to analyse the move to weekly publication, the question of the long-term future of newspapers has been ever-present.
I don’t know if my children will ever pay real money for news on bits of dead trees.
But that trust and loyalty will be needed to win their attention wherever we present our regional news. And building that has to be a daily task and a daily priority – however often you publish.