Old model for new journalism – weekly paper proves sustainable

Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

You could call it the new traditionalism. The Cleethorpes Chronicle is a rare beast – a weekly local newspaper, a start-up bucking the trend of the decline of print, launched in the teeth of recession and funded by advertising.

The paper was founded in March 2008 by editor Nigel Lowther and managing director Mark Webb on the strength of personal investment plus bank loans. Both men had substantial experience in the area’s regional press – the former was deputy editor of the Grimsby Telegraph, while Webb had been managing director at Grimsby and Scunthorpe newspapers. They had done no formal market research to establish the paper’s viability, but had a ‘strong gut feeling’ that the town, which had never had its own paper, could support one.

Three years on, it seems they were right. The paper has a weekly circulation of 10,000 and is available at around 90 local outlets from newsagents to supermarkets. Firmly in profit, and with a total staff of 13, it draws most of its revenue from advertising, while a small proportion comes from the paper’s cover price of 45p.

In marked contrast to the regional press, where expectations of profit can hit 30%, the proprietors of the Cleethorpes Chronicle say they will be content with profits of 5%.

It’s an aspiration, says Lowther, very much in keeping with the climate that traditionally nurtured local journalism. ‘We’re coming full circle,’ he says. ‘A hundred years ago, local newspapers were owned by local businesses who wanted to promote their message and make a contribution to the community. That’s exactly what we’re doing.’

Being at the heart of the community, he says, is key to developing the clear editorial vision central to the paper’s success. Despite their higher cost, it was decided from the outset to have offices in the town centre so that paper and community could communicate freely. The result is the classic local paper blend of stories and listings about what’s going on in the town’s schools and WIs – what Lowther calls ‘below-radar community journalism’.

Surprisingly, this is achieved with only one full-time reporter, supported by part-time staff who come in to produce the paper on a short press cycle. ‘Editorially, we are a lean, mean team,’ says Lowther. ‘If you’ve got a good team, they know what they’ve got to do, and it’s very focused.’

To avoid spreading the limited resources too thinly, the Chronicle has no news website, maintaining an online presence solely through a static, showcase-style site. And, if and when an online news operation is launched, the proprietors have already made some clear decisions about the business model.

‘We’ve always said we will never put our content online free of charge,’ says Lowther. ‘No other business does it, so we don’t see why newspapers should.’