How the digitization of local newspapers can be successful

Esra Celebi

It wasn't that long ago that local newspapers were almost without competition. Warren Buffett once said that the local newspaper is an impregnable fortress.

It wasn't that long ago that local newspapers were almost without competition. Warren Buffett once said that the local newspaper is an impregnable fortress.

The world has changed a lot since then. The future of local media has become extremely uncertain. The reason for this is the transition to a digital and mobile media universe.

Nevertheless - this change is not an automatic death blow for local newspapers.

Local newspapers can thrive even in a digitally driven world. This is exactly why I want to dive deeper into this topic in this article. Together, we will examine current problems, success factors and new business models for local newspapers.

Local newspapers are not yet up to the digital challenge

The digitization of newspapers didn't happen overnight. Since the 1990s, local newspaper publishers have been dealing with this thing called the Internet. Internet news saw a rapid rise, and some local newspaper publishers built their own websites to publish their articles. However, the rise of social media led many local newspapers to begin driving traffic through likes and clicks.

As a result, however, local newspapers became a shadow of their former selves. They found that the endless pursuit of clicks and likes was not an effective long-term strategy. Moreover, many were forced to merge with larger dailies in hopes of maintaining a presence in their local scenes.

Local newspapers look very different today. According to a study published by the Tow Center at Columbia University, on average only 17% of articles in local newspapers are about local issues. In the past, there were journalists who accurately reported on local politics or the latest district court decision. Today, in many places, that's a relic of a different era.

A weak local presence is one thing. Another is the fact that many local newspapers still haven't internalized the digital revolution. According to the same study, 12% of local newspapers still don't have a website. There could be several reasons for this. For example, too little money or too little technical help. Regardless, however, these publications are foregoing the opportunity to publish their content on their own websites.

This is partly due to the rise of social media. For example, about 34% of local newspapers that do not have a website have created a Facebook profile. Overall, as many as 80% of local newspaper publishers have a presence on the world's largest social network.

The Fuldaer Zeitung has its own Facebook presence as well as its own website.

Why? First, it's easy to create a presence on Facebook. Moreover, the sheer size of the network is extremely attractive. Nevertheless, the rise of Fake News in particular should not leave local newspaper publishers unaffected. After all, Facebook can place their content alongside fake or false content.

In addition, many local newspaper publishers still rely on responsive websites instead of their own apps. One study shows that 84% of local newspapers use websites and only 27% use apps. While a presence on social media channels is better than no presence at all, news apps offer many advantages.

The news app of the Westfälische Nachrichten.

How local newspapers can master digitization

Many local newspapers could do a lot more when it comes to using digital technologies. Your readers are already eagerly waiting for it. It will also leave more revenue on the table.

Fortunately, you can start taking action today. For example, you can focus on changing your monetization strategy and growing your readership. According to Nieman Journalism Lab, this restructuring boils down to implementing three key points.

  1. Generate higher revenues from digital sources compared to print media.
  2. Generate higher subscription revenues compared to advertising revenues.
  3. Net revenue growth, with the general goal of generating more digital revenue to offset declining print revenue.

These milestones focus on getting higher digital revenues from readers themselves. This is very different from the old model, where newspapers relied on advertisers to generate most of the revenue. There are several ways local newspapers can achieve these milestones. Here's a selection:

  • Engaging younger and more diverse audiences of readers. As a result, the Texas Tribune reached nearly 8x more visitors per month.
  • Provide more opportunities for subscribers to get involved and engage in the newsroom. One idea is to have your journalists host live chats on Facebook about a particular story. As a publisher, you can also create videos that give readers a behind-the-scenes look at your newsrooms.
  • Increase newsletter subscribers. Email newsletters can be an excellent strategy because they provide a direct link to engagement and new subscriptions.
  • Create new internal structures. Consider close collaboration between editorial and digital production. This can help you reach these three milestones faster.
  • Consider adding value to your audience in new ways. One great way is through apps. Newsrooms that use apps can distribute content that closely matches readers' interests and geographic locations.
  • Use social media more. Social media can help you connect very closely with your readers.

A proactive approach using the above points can help you drive your own digitization. However, you should definitely try out these ideas step by step. This is much better than waiting for a perfect strategy.

New business models for local newspapers

Local newspapers need to act quickly and boldly to achieve these three milestones and make a digital transformation, but

newspapers should also think about developing alternative sources of revenue. There are a wide range of options here. Things like events, e-commerce, custom publications and in-house marketing firms are all relevant.

At this point, I'd like to share three case studies from a recent Reuters Institute report. These local newspapers have successfully worked with alternative revenue streams, making significant progress toward digital transformation.


First of all there is the Westfalenpost. Based in South Westphalia, Westfalenpost is a regional daily newspaper in Germany. In order to find its way in this digitized world, Westfalenpost has taken various initiatives.

On the one hand, the newspaper opted for a multimedia approach to its content. For example, it uses podcasts and videos to deliver high-quality content to its readership.

It also made the decision to set up a central newsroom. This means that it produces online content that can be shared among all newspapers and adapted to local markets. The newspaper even publishes some trade magazines that focus on specific interests. For example, one of its magazines focuses on sustainable travel.

These changes have helped Westfalenpost transform itself into a digital flagship company. It shifted its business model, which had previously focused on selling print media. Now it generates significant revenue from its online offerings. Of course, Westfalenpost continues to experiment.

Nevertheless, it is already a great example of a local newspaper that has successfully bridged the digital divide.


Another excellent example is the Main-Post. This is another regional newspaper in Germany that, like many others, has introduced a paid pay wall. This paywall model allows website visitors to view multiple articles before taking out a subscription.

Main-Post has also had great success in developing its own apps. One example of this is the popular e-paper app with 8,000 subscribers. A dedicated app for daily news has also quickly achieved remarkable traction.

The Main-Post's crucial lesson? It has not hesitated to take advantage of different business models and mobile technologies. Through these efforts, the Main-Post now offers its readers significant added value.

NOZ Media

Last but not least NOZ Media take a look. That's because the newspaper has an exciting and loyal Facebook community.

But that's not all. It also offers digital ticketing and marketplaces for regional vendors in Germany. This may seem like a "non-traditional" role for a regional newspaper. However, NOZ Medien has found that these options are very popular with its readers. In addition, the newspaper even offers helpful websites for selling dogs and horses.

Local Newspaper NOZ Media Dogs Website Image


Which of these should you take to heart? As a publisher, you shouldn't be afraid to challenge the status quo. That way, you'll find your next way to generate new digital revenue.

Finally, I have a quote for you that sums up the digital opportunities for local newspapers.

"Local newspapers should develop new approaches that emphasize multimedia distribution, distinctive local content, collaboration and the user experience, while recognizing the value of efficient production and commercial strategies."

Joy Jenkins, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Journalism and Electronic Media.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Nevertheless, now is the best time to start. I hope you will remain flexible and have the courage to experiment with new possibilities. In this way, you are guaranteed to invest wisely in the future of your newspaper.

To get started, consider using a digital publishing platform like Purpel DS, which has an intelligent CMS and highly efficient multichannel workflows. Request a free demo and find out how we can help your local newspaper succeed in the digital world.

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Kevin Kallenbach
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