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I love digital but residents still prefer print to keep up to date on council business

Andy Allsopp
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I recently hired an out-of-work newspaper editor to work for Essex CC.

This illustrates the increasingly dire state of our local newspaper industry. Comms heads will be used to hiring more junior team members, but an editor? An editor of a multi-award-winning newspaper, respected if occasionally complained about by our politicians here in Essex? Unusual business.

I am quite sentimental about the local press. Like a few in local government comms, I’m a former local news hack. My first editor hired me while I was on work experience because I wrote a story for the Surrey Herald which led to a district councillor serving a four-month stretch in Brixton Prison.

“I suppose we’d better give you a job then,” she said: best words I’d ever heard.

The Herald ceased printing and moved entirely online 18 months ago. It is owned by Trinity Mirror, where the editorial blueprint is ‘web-first’ with slimmed-down news teams operating under a content editor. The person I have just hired lost his job after Trinity Mirror bought the title he edited. I learnt this week that another of our local newspaper groups, Newsquest, appears to be heading down a similar route with its senior editorial staff.

The local news industry is paying the price for struggling to monetise the shift to digital. Ad revenue from websites remains low, despite the shift of readers online. A few in local government might celebrate the demise of good old news print, but it troubles me.

Why? Data from our residents tracker (I love that title; it sounds like we’ve electronically tagged the entire Essex population) tells us that local print is still their preferred way of learning what the council doing. What matters here is the press’s independence. If Essex CC gets a positive editorial comment from any of our local titles, it’s a fist pump kind of day. Third party endorsement rules.

Second, local print readers are voters and people who take part in consultations, write letters, engage with their councillors and MPs. Take away print and we jeopardise that connection.

Third, print can still work. The boss of Waitrose’s media agency recently revealed print is the supermarket chain’s most effective channel in terms of return on investment. Waitrose still prints a customer newspaper and a magazine. Really nice looking publications they are as well. You can see why people read them and why they come back to the store and buy the advertised items.

I’m a huge fan of digital; I love the council’s Facebook page. I love how our customer service staff use Twitter to wish Essex people a good morning and ask how we can help. I love how our website makes dealing with us easy. But we need to remember to take people with us on the journey toward digital. Rush it and we’ll lose people.

Ultimately, we simply need to do what Waitrose does, which is what works. That’s far more important than any strategy we could produce.

Andy Allsopp, head of communications and marketing, Essex CC

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