I had a very interesting chat with the man behind a new portal the other day.
He was John Dixon, the portal was Movinorth - an unusual site because it’s regional for Yorkshire, and not national or global in its ambitions. What sticks in my mind is John’s determination that it offers better value for agents’ advertising budgets than traditional local newspapers. I have no particular torch to carry for John’s portal, but he is of course right.
Two sets of figures in recent weeks, released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) and carried by the UK Press Gazette, show the depth of the problem for local newspapers.
The first reveals that in the second half of 2016, local weekly newspapers reduced their circulation by an average of 11.2 per cent year on year. “The figures suggest quickening in the pace of print decline in recent years possibly fuelled by cover price rises, editorial cutbacks and readership moving to online” says the Gazette.
As with all average figures, this masked even more shocking stats: Scotland on Sunday’s circulation dropped 26.5 per cent, for example, with the Herts & Essex Observer down 16.3 per cent. Bad? Of course - but not as bad as the Merthyr Express, down 30.1 per cent, or the Ellesmere Port Pioneer which lost 29.1 per cent of its readers.
There are a handful - but only a handful - of local weekly papers that showed circulation increases, but that’s out of 288 weeklies in total.
If you think that’s catastrophic, hold the front page: the figures for circulation losses for local daily newspapers in 2016 were worse still.
The Wigan Evening Post was down 36 per cent; The National, a Scottish daily, was down 30 per cent; Hartlepool’s Mail lost 23 per cent, the Gloucester Citizen fell 20 per cent and the Yorkshire Evening Post - one of John Dixon’s locals, I think - dropped 19 per cent.
Now on the other side of the equation is the fact that most newspapers saw substantial increases in their online readership. My local twice-weekly paper, the Exeter Express & Echo, does a damn good job at keeping its online site up to date - it even has live coverage, and live social media reporting, from key planning committee meetings.
ABC’s figures for online readership make very heartening reading and in many cases the online growth exceeds the hard copy decline.
So, again as reported by the UK Press Gazette, the Manchester Evening News is the most popular regional press website - bigger even that the London Evening Standard - with an average of 652,881 unique browsers per day.
The Liverpool Echo, Wales Online, Birmingham Mail and the Newcastle Chronicle Live are the next most popular. Meanwhile the Belfast Newsletter shows the biggest growth - up a stunning 67 per cent in 2016 to 20,336 unique browsers per day.
But here’s the thing for estate agents to consider: when a person picks up their local newspaper they may well thumb through the property section, whether it’s out of idle curiosity or just to kill time. That’s in addition to those readers in the process of buying or selling a home, or considering doing so, who are motivated to go to the property section.
Does the same apply online? Do (or will) online readers choose to go to the property ads on the Express & Echo’s website when they could just as easily go to Rightmove and be confident of seeing just about every property that is sitting on the local market?
My guess is that the answer to that question is ‘No’ - and I say that out of sadness, as I am a journalist after all and have spent many years writing for newspapers. John Dixon may or may not have a success on his hands with Movinorth but either way, he’s probably right when it comes to his pessimistic view about local newspapers.
That dramatic circulation fall in 2016 needs only one big event to turn into terminal decline: that could be local agents finally giving up on print. I wish it wasn’t so but that’s the way it is.
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn