Collectif Top Stories
6 mins read

Five lessons larger publishers could learn from the indie news sector

As an experienced journalist having run the editorial functions of two of the UK’s biggest regional publishers, Jeremy Clifford puts forward the key lessons larger media brands can learn from their more nimble, local brethren. With the advent of AI, at no time have these lessons been more important…

The future of news is bright. Publishers are confident about their prospects. There is a mushrooming growth of news businesses starting up.

You may wonder what pills I have taken,  but I bet it has grabbed your attention. And what is more, all three statements are true.

So, those who are predicting the terminal decline of the news industry are wrong – they are just looking through the wrong glasses.

A recent article called the News Industry in Meltdown (published on Medium) asked the question whether we were witnessing a market failure or creative destruction.

It was making the case that if it was the former, then only external intervention, public regulation and subsidies could salvage it. Or if it was creative destruction, then we are seeing the natural course of events when an ageing industry sheds its skin and there is a metamorphosis where a new ecosystem is emerging and taking its place via disruption.

In truth, we are probably seeing a mixture of both. There is a market failure taking place in which an industry has largely failed to innovate quickly enough to withstand the structural schisms that have ripped the news business asunder.

Press Gazette this month reported that more than 7,900 journalism industry jobs were lost from media companies in the UK, US and Canada in 2023 – and these were just from the larger media companies. (Note, these were not limited to editorial job losses).

So why am I saying the future of news is healthy?

There are two main reasons. The first comes from the recent World Press Trends survey published last month, and the second is because there is a burgeoning and growing indie news sector which is filling the void of news provision.

The World Press Trends report findings (published by WAN-IFRA) showed that more than half of respondents (55%) said they were “optimistic” about the next 12 months and 58% for the next three years.

They also expected increased revenues in 2023 and four in 10 companies describe their digital transformation as advanced.

The second point is we are seeing the continuing emergence of the independent news sector – a community news sector, which appears to be healthy.

So if this is the case, what are they doing right that the larger corporate news organisations can learn from – if anything?

In truth, they are so different from the larger corporates that on the face of it, there is probably little that could translate across.

As Jonathan Heawood, CEO of the Public Interest News Foundation, which represents the interests of many indie publishers, says: “It is a bit like asking what can Starbucks learn from an independent coffee shop? You can go into Starbucks anywhere in the UK and you will get a templated service. But each independent is different. Starbucks cannot behave like an independent”

But we went deeper into the conversation and there are potentially some opportunities. Here are five thoughts:

Niche rather than all things

The strengths of the likes of the Manchester Mill, Bristol Cable and Greater Govanhill – three much celebrated independent news providers – is they really know their audiences.

They have developed niche audiences either through the type or the tone of the content they deliver.

And maybe niche is one thing the larger companies should really investigate.

As Douglas McCabe, CEO of media analysts Enders, has said, it is the generalists who are most likely to lose out in the future. Those who find a niche, who narrow their focus, are the ones who will serve their audiences best.

Quality versus Quantity

Too many large publishers are still obsessing about quantity rather than drilling into quality news publishing. Those who do invest in quality – itself a difficult thing to define – are the ones who are seeing returns.

Take DC Thomson, which ripped up the way they produced content and put a laser focus on quality. They are now celebrating 30,000-plus subscriptions on the back of it.

The Mill will only publish a limited amount of content each week, and is claiming it has a solid and growing following of subscribers.

And the newest kid on the block, the QT, run by Brian Aitken in the north east of England, is promising a once-a-week-only upload to ensure his followers come to the site by appointment for quality journalism.

Entrepreneurial spirit

One thing that defines the independent sector is its entrepreneurial spirit. This is something that has largely been lost from the larger publishers – except maybe the biggest such as Schibsted and the New York Times.

As Professor Francois Nel, of the Media Innovation Studio based at the University of Central Lancashire, England, and a co-author of the World Press Trends Report, says: “What large organisations can learn is the innate optimism that fuels the indie sector’s entrepreneurship. They are optimistic about their business, they have a real entrepreneurial drive.”

This view was also reflected by McCabe when he bemoaned the lack of entrepreneurship in the larger organisations, in an interview he conducted for the News Futures 2035 project, set up to look at the future of public interest news.

“It is harder for the corporates to be brave and entrepreneurial. Complacency will be the biggest problem for the news industry.”

This view is echoed by Nel who said short-termism in the corporates hampers their ability to prosper. “Any business goes wrong when they think in the short term and not in the longer term of the sustainability of the market they operate in.”

Deeper engagement with their audiences

The indie and community news sector demonstrate a very deep engagement with their communities.

It is something the larger publishers have lost over time and through the move to a digital focus.

Rhiannon Davies, who runs Greater Govanhill, a community news publisher serving parts of Glasgow, has made a virtue of having a community focus. As Nel says: “She runs a business that has remarkably come into breakeven in such a short period. She started off by listening to her community, involving them in story-telling, engaging with them on and offline.”

He went on to add that maybe the User Needs model should be adapted to a Community Needs approach.

“I see it as more of a deep community engagement that is needed. Think about audiences as part of communities. They listen to individuals but also to communities and their needs and tailor their content accordingly. Big publishers could benefit from adopting this type of engagement strategy.”

Nimbleness, Adaptability and Collaborative spirit

The indie news sector is characterised by its ability to be nimble and to be flexible. Going back to Heawood: “Flexibility and nimbleness is part of their success. They can move to a different strategy very quickly. They don’t have to go through corporate layers to get sign-off.”

He also talks about the close collaborative spirit they have. “They aren’t competing on the same turf and so are very happy to share information and to collaborate.”

So these are five potential areas that the larger news organisations could row back on and reintroduce to their operating models. After all, they all at one time were doing this and some still do, but maybe not with the focus they need.

One last thought. The indie sector has not got everything right. While they may be held up as a beacon and the new emergent news sector, this is not about an either or.

The indies are barely making profit (generally speaking). They rely on subsidies and grants and they are not organised well enough to be able to lobby for change in the way the larger organisations are.

So what really needs to happen is for the larger publishers to work out how they can work with the independent news sector. To form a new collaborative spirit, where they learn from each other and co-exist – each serving different audiences but also producing content that is deeply engaging, trusted and serving the public interest, in a sustainable way for all.

Jeremy Clifford
Founding Director, Chrysalis Transformations

Jeremy Clifford is the founding director of Chrysalis Transformations, a digital change management consultancy which offers leadership development and coaching. He is an experienced journalist having run the editorial functions of two of the UK’s biggest regional publishers, and now also co-runs an AI consultancy and training partnership, the AI-Collective.