Speaking at the Journalism Leaders Forum at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) last night, representatives of the US and UK regional newspaper industries said newspapers should use websites to address the gaps in information in their readers' lives.
Publishers must address the issue of readers using alternative sites to find information that was traditionally the domain of local news media, such as classified adverts for cars and property, if they are to build online audiences and revenues, said Stephen Gray, managing director of the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project.
"There are large pieces of what used to be newspaper content that people will now get across the internet. One unique piece of content they [local newspapers] provide is local, but the other categories are all fading away," said Gray.
"At the same time as the erosion happens to the traditional news product, they [readers] are using the resources online to deal with the problems they face in their own lives."
There is an 'exploding category of information and acquisition' online, of which local newspapers need to take advantage, he added.
"You need to open your eyes to a much broader opportunity to become the provider of choice across many internet categories of information."
Both Gray and fellow panellist digital media strategist Steve Yelvington said this process would involve more face-to-face contact with local readers, to address the 'information failure'.
The process could also help free up journalists to produce more original content if some information was provided automatically – through RSS feeds or uploaded by community groups, said Jane Singer, Johnston Press chair in digital journalism at UCLAN.
According to the speakers, becoming an information hub could also help address the problem of advertising, as the 'revenue base [of newspapers] is eroding along with the newspaper's grip on its audience'.
"The general concept of ad-supported news isn't broken… it's the fact that we’re not building the audiences that the advertising community wants us to provide," said Yelvington.
Greater collaboration between sales and editorial departments in terms of online skills should also be encouraged to support this model, he said.
Offering a UK perspective, Simon Reynolds, editorial director at the Lancashire Evening Post, said the notion of a local newspaper as an information portal was 'nothing new', but that the delivery mechanisms for this information had changed.
"I do believe we have to extend our reach away from news and become a more sophisticated portal," he said.
"The press need to understand where the new revenues are going to come from and build a business model on that. We must make ourselves invaluable."
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