Convergence is the biggest opportunity for regional newspapers "by a country mile", according to Robert Ray, marketing director of The Newspaper Society. Over the past few years, regional newspapers - the second largest UK medium after TV, with more than £3bn of ad revenue - have been growing their portfolios to deliver the news through a fusion of print, digital and broadcast channels.
At the last count, the regional press portfolio amounted to 1,300 newspapers, 820 websites, 600-plus magazines and supplements, 28 radio stations, two TV channels and numerous digital platforms ranging from podcasts to mobile.
Among the most inventive papers are the Welwyn and Hatfield Times, which features cyber newsreader Miranda Fox on its website www.herts24.co.uk, and the Mansfield Chad, which allowed readers to download audio clips of the town's mayoral elections just hours after the results were announced at http://www.mansfieldtoday.co.uk/.
Like their national counterparts, regional newspaper owners have rebranded to reflect the sea-change from suppliers of print news to today's multimedia organisations. In October 2006, the Manchester Evening News became MEN Media to convey its integration of print, radio, TV and online, while the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal, which incorporates print, digital and events and exhibition arms, became NCJ Media in July 2006.
Ray says: "The regional press has evolved massively over the past few years to become far more than just local newspapers. Local media offer enormous potential to drive business and we are seeing more and more national brands leveraging the local press across all its relevant platforms."
Tim Bowdler, chief executive of Johnston Press, which has transformed around 75% of its 320 newsrooms into converged "hubs", adds: "The days when editors could dictate how and when people should access news are long since gone. Today's consumers want news, information and advertising content in a variety of formats at the time of their choosing, and the role of our business is to provide that."
The first Johnston Press newspaper to adopt the converged model was the Lancashire Evening Post in January 2006, based on the example of international papers such as the Tampa Tribune and the Kansas Journal. The Post has become renowned for its use of online video; its other new platforms - driven by reader interest - include podcasts, slide shows, e-magazines and a daily online TV news bulletin.
Advertising is available on every Lancashire Evening Post platform - for example, the Lancashire Pets page is sponsored by the Lancashire-based Oscar Pet Foods. Editor Simon Reynolds says: "The Post is now an interactive part of people's lives, via the combination of print and online. Our fastest-growing ad platforms are those with video content."
The number of unique users to www.lep.co.uk trebled over the period January to December 2006, while the number of page views quadrupled, according to Johnston Press figures.
Reynolds adds: "The rate of decline in the circulation of the print newspaper has slowed since the multimedia strategy kicked in. We have huge online traffic [150,900 unique users in May 2007] and this is reaching a new audience - the combination of web and print extends audience size exponentially."
Another thriving Johnston Press website - of which there are 250 - is www.scotsman.com, acquired by Scotsman Publications in January 2006. The site was the sixth most-visited news and media print website in May 2006, according to Hitwise, with 1.52% of the market share. Virtually every Scotsman
Publications print ad is now packaged with an online ad to give advertisers the best reach in the Scottish market.
Henry Faure Walker, general manager, Scotsman Publications, says: "Online enables us to offer advertisers a high-volume audience that other media can only dream of. Ads, for example, that appear in our print titles and on www.scotsman.com will be seen by 85% of people living in the Lothian area in one week. Online accelerates the number of people reached and widens the demographic - stories are now read by more people than at any other time in the history of the titles."
MEN Media started its multimedia drive in October 2006, when it moved to its new offices. The company now runs a fully converged newsroom, with representatives around the central hub from each of the platforms: the two daily papers (Manchester Evening News and Metro), the 20 paid-for and free weekly papers, the website www.manchesteronline.co.uk and the Channel M local TV station. In addition, MEN Media owns direct marketing business MEN Direct.
From next January, when the company's owner, Guardian Media Group, launches a new talk-based radio station for Greater Manchester, a radio representative will also sit on the central hub.
The convergence editor at MEN Media is Ian Wood, who oversees online, broadcast and weekly and daily output, assigning stories in a "platform-neutral" manner to the channel that will serve them best.
Editorial innovations have been complemented by a restructure of the sales team after MEN Media research showed that advertisers wanted one point of contact for placing ads across all platforms. Previously, the sales team was scattered across the city; today, there are just two main call centres that handle ad sales for all platforms - Channel M has its own direct sales team - plus a team of 50 field-sales reps.
Mark Rix, managing director, MEN Media Sales, says: "We listened to advertisers and saw that we needed to reposition our proposition to be fit for a new world - it is about reacting to customer pull rather than pushing the products."
Of the two million adults in Greater Manchester, MEN Media has a reach of 90% each week. The Manchester Evening News has a daily ABC circulation of 114,676, while Channel M, which produces 4.5 hours of live TV each day, expanded its audience by 30% between April to October 2006, according to MEN Media figures. Channel M reaches 316,000 viewers per week (source: Ipsos/Mori), giving the broadcaster a 17% reach in Greater Manchester.
The majority of the Channel M content is sliced and diced into packages and broadcast online at www.channelm.co.uk. The aim at Channel M is to push video content across as many sites as possible - for example, there is a move to broadcast sports video content on the weekly newspaper websites. Ruth Spratt, assistant managing director for MEN Media (digital and broadcast), says: "Channel M is the shop window and online allows us to exploit the long tail."
Local agencies welcome the increased reach provided by multimedia platforms. Jason Spencer, managing director of Manchester-based PHD North, explains: "MEN Media Sales offers us a multiplatform solution focused on driving the message in the appropriate channels in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This provides better thinking, better pricing and better agency servicing."
The goal at Trinity Mirror, which has launched websites for each of its 300-plus regional newspapers over the past 12 months, is to be a "multichannel publishing business", according to David Black, digital media director, Trinity Mirror Regionals.
He says: "Commercially, we publish a network of local classified sites with an integrated brand strategy [such as www.jobswales.co.uk], launched throughout 2006. This means we can offer advertisers an unbeatable package of the leading local newspaper title and the leading local sites in each of our markets."
Trinity Mirror has integrated its print and online sales teams, complemented by digital sales specialists for certain customer segments such as interactive ad agencies. The results from the converged strategy are positive. In 2006, Trinity Mirror delivered "a healthy profit margin" on the £30m of revenue delivered by its digital assets, and the company aggregates more than eight million users per month across all its websites.
Meanwhile, Archant, which has 90 newspaper titles, each with a companion website under its "24" branding, is reconfiguring its sites so that all carry audio, video and mapping elements. The first website to be relaunched will be www.en24.co.uk, in September this year; the full roll-out will be completed by early 2008. Archant also has three classified sites: www.homes24.co.uk, launched in October 2006; www.jobs24.co.uk, launched in January 2007; and www.drive24.co.uk, launched in June 2007. Total unique visitors across all of the sites reached 1.2 million in March 2007.
At the www.homes24.co.uk site, Archant has introduced its new results-based model for advertising: advertisers now pay on a cost-per-1,000-click-throughs basis.
Ian Davies, director of development at Archant, says: "We are starting to sell results rather than space - for example, estate agent advertisers do not pay until someone clicks on their properties. This is a more successful way of doing business: our online ad revenues have compensated for the overall drop in ad revenues."
Further south, the Kent Messenger Group is unique in owning seven local radio stations with the same footprint as its 23 paid-for and free weekly newspapers and associated websites, all of which run a daily online news video from 1pm. The process of putting the group's newspapers online was completed in late 2006.
Brin Bucknor, commercial director, says: "The physical delivery and demographic reach of our local newspapers matches the audience footprint of our seven local radio stations. When we link that with our online brands and digital editions it means we can offer true multimedia solutions to our customers across the region. This is unique compared to any other media owner, in or outside of Kent."
The biggest challenge for regional newspaper owners as they move into converged journalism and media sales is training: there is an ongoing learning curve as staff master the new technologies and adapt to the huge cultural shift. The Lancashire Evening Post has invested a six-figure sum in training, technology and staff and has also founded a chair in digital journalism at the University of Central Lancashire.
Online sales expert Bob Morrell, who trained Newsquest Media Sales's London and Manchester teams earlier this year, predicts that it will take "a year or two" for media sales teams to fully grasp multiplatform selling.
He says: "Many media sales people believe they can sell online in the same way as print; they struggle with the fact that online has no deadlines and it is a much more creative, customer-led sale."
Another issue is metrics: the industry needs a new measurement that reflects total audience size more accurately than simply combining ABC, ABCe and Rajar figures, for example. Archant's Davies says: "The challenge is to identify the right way to reach an audience when they are consuming news in so many different ways. Measuring the impact of cross-platform delivery will be critical."
To this end, The Newspaper Society is forging ahead with plans to develop a multimedia portfolio audience currency for the regional press.
Working alongside JICREG (the Joint Industry Committee for Regional Press) and ABCe, it is building an expanded database of regional print and online platforms (further details at www.newspapersoc.org.uk). The new database is seen as the first stage in generating a system of combined audience reach.
For the time being, editorial and sales teams are united in the common aim of working out what the customer wants through trial and error, increasing audience engagement, and, most importantly, making a profit.
Looking forward, PHD North's Spencer says: "The task now is to deliver the right audience across channels and ensure that not everything is thrown into the package every time."
And as MEN Media's Wood adds: "We are not scared of making mistakes; the only wrong approach is to do nothing at all."
This article was first published on Media Week