Lichfield is a picturesque town in Staffordshire, home to some 30,000 people who, until recently, had no local newspaper.

They did have a local news website, Lichfield Live, though. In a move that goes against the trend of ditching print in favour of digital, the team printed four issues of 5,000 copies each that they distributed around the town.

"They just flew off. People were so glad to see a paper again," says Philip John who co-runs Lichfield Live with editor Ross Hawkes, about the first issue of the fortnightly paper published in March. He adds that people even contacted them to ask for more copies and pickup points.

Ross Hawkes (left) and Philip John posing with the first issue of Lichfield and Burntwood Independent. Image courtesy Lichfield Live

Sustainability conundrum

The experiment is self-financed - John and Hawkes invested £6,000 to launch the paper - although John says that they managed to sell enough ads to see the first issues pay for themselves. However, the newspaper that is entirely run by volunteers needs more than breaking even.

"We focus on sustainability but the way we are doing it now is not sustainable. Relying on volunteers is unsustainable, we need to get people on the payroll," says John without sugarcoating the reality of printing a local paper.

The operation would not be possible without repurposing content from the online publication, with all editing and design made in-house. Content is largely what you would expect from a local paper - council news, community stories and so on. Based on reader feedback so far, it will stay largely the same but the team are considering expanding the ‘What’s on’ section and increasing advert space because local businesses are keen on buying ads.

Sustainability is not just about finances. John distributes all the copies in his electric car - although that is more of a happenstance - and the publisher has not considered the environmental impact of the print paper yet.

"We want to first test whether the concept works without overloading ourselves," explains John, "but we will consider that in the future because we’re conscious of [the impact of print on the climate]."

To finance the paper, Lichfield Live expanded its membership programme for readers who want to support the print publication. For £15 a month, people can have their newspaper delivered to their house rather than picking it up from a venue.

"They believe in what we do so they support us," says John. "People want a sense of ownership and community."

Serving the community

Rather than pitching online against print, Lichfield Live cross-promotes the website and the paper, including mentions in the Sunday Editorial newsletter which has some 2,000 subscribers.

Its annual reader survey consistently shows that while people mostly prefer to get their news online, print and newsletters are still in high demand.

Like in many smaller towns, Lichfield’s population skews slightly older, which may partly explain the appetite for print newspapers. The area is also home to many businesses that still value print advertising.

John says this is just one story in the sea of independent local news and they are all facing the same challenges and are trying to learn lessons from each other.

"We see big publishers abandoning their communities. But we see people volunteer their time to provide public service news. If we didn’t give up our time, it would be a news dessert and that would be a terrible thing.

"We are proud of what we are doing but it should be this way."

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