In My Opinion: Martin Little: It’s called Aberdeen, a beacon of hope for local papers

AS February approaches, local newspaper editors are bracing themselves for the public exhibition that are the sales figures issued by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Suddenly, the microscope is hovering over each and every newsroom – for good reason or bad.

For me, the tense wait has lessened recently since a shift in my job from managing editor of Scottish weeklies at Romanes Media Group to head of business development. A strange step, you may think, for someone who has led and enjoyed the bulk of their career to date editing newspapers.

But it is a step I am happy to take as it gives me the chance to start focusing on what is still strong in many parts of our regional newspaper industry: the brands.

While circulations might be dwindling among all but a few titles, the names live on.

Our established local newspapers continue to provide a wealth of growth opportunities, the potential for new products and (for the accountants out there) new revenue streams.

In my view, the prospects of these ‘new revenue streams’ come down to one thing: the community, or, more to the point, two distinctly different types of community. I call them ‘participating’ and ‘non-participating’.

Communities, for instance, that comprise, in large part, commuters to the bigger conurbations are likely to be more non-participating; in other words, people who leave in the morning and return in the evening and have little time to engage with what might be taking place on their own doorstep.

They may have, in fact, never been local to the town or village where they are now living, the main reason for them being there being nothing more than cheaper housing.

Our cities too are becoming, arguably, even more cosmopolitan, comprising a less obviously local newspaper-buying population.

But, on the other hand, you also have participating communities, places that want to retain their identity and will fight hard to do so. There, you’ll see ‘community friends groups’ popping up, garden clubs and gala days. These areas are ripe for local newspapers as the people living in them really do care about their community and feel that a newspaper partly defines them.

These areas are ideal to expand the brand and develop opportunities to create new audiences outside of traditional newsprint.

Then there’s the ideal: somewhere that still wants print and has the strength of brand to do all these wonderful new things. Where is this mythical place, you ask?

It’s called Aberdeen.

Aberdeen is the perfect example of a city that is geared up for regional newspapers.

Recently, The Press and Journal recorded an incredible 19 per cent increase in readership over a 12-month period and, sister title, the Evening Express hasn’t fared too badly either.

An outsider would be forgiven for thinking it should not have two titles selling in the volumes they do. With the changing dynamics of our population, local newspaper markets are changing, and many newspapers that rely on sales in and around our major cities are struggling significantly.

Yet, Aberdeen is the exception. Aberdonians hardly ever leave the city and why would they? Unemployment is extremely low and the standard of living is high. As a result, you have thousands of potential readers who really care about the city they live in and the local newspapers that service it.

I should add that both Aberdeen newspapers are quality publications – and as a proud Aberdonian, born and bred, I can tell that the respective newsrooms clearly know their market, and know exactly how to provide two totally different products to what is (in the nicest possible way) a relatively insular and proud community.

Let’s hope the next set of ABCs are as favourable on them as the last.

I guess the real question is: How do regional newspapers make the most of these so-called ‘participating communities’?

And how the hell do they deal with the problem of these ‘non-participating’ ones?

I’m working on it…

Martin Little is head of business development at Clyde & Forth Press.