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How graduate-founded The Lincolnite is giving traditional media a run for their money

By Ian Burrell | Columnist

July 27, 2017 | 10 min read

It was graduation day at the University of Lincoln and the moment when student journalist Daniel Ionescu glanced down at his Facebook account and ingested news that set his mind on becoming a media owner.

The Lincolnite's offices look out to the Gothic towers of Lincoln’s ancient cathedral

At the top of his feed was a story from The Guardian stating that for every job on the market there were 72 new graduates who might be interested in it. He determined to go it alone.

Well, not quite alone. Among his fellow graduates was another journalist, Elizabeth Fish, and a web designer, Chris Brandrick. Between them, they had already created an online version of the student newspaper, The Linc. So they took off their mortar boards and set about providing a new digital news service for the population of Lincoln, one of England’s most historic cities.

Seven years later, The Lincolnite stands as testimony to their bravery and vision.

The flagship website is part of a portfolio of three media brands that includes the county-focused Lincolnshire Reporter and Lincolnshire Business. Together, the three sites have a social media, app and email subscriber base of more than 150,000, and monthly traffic of 550,000 unique readers (according to Google Analytics), with 1.5m page impressions and 10m ad impressions. “We are pretty chuffed about that, considering we are covering an area of about 900,000 people,” says Ionescu of the sparsely populated and famously flat catchment area that he serves.

A modern local publisher

The Lincolnite looks out from its newsroom window to the Gothic towers of Lincoln’s ancient cathedral, which once outranked the Pyramids as the world’s tallest building. But this is a forward-looking operation which could become a fine model for modern local news publishing.

If The Lincolnite can thrive in eastern England, then there would appear to be significant opportunities for other young digital entrepreneurs. Originally relying on the work of two inexperienced journalists making calls to the police and council, and uploading stories online ahead of local traditional media, The Lincolnite now has 10 staff and a slick interface that is in its third incarnation. It even sends push news alerts to subscribers on iOS and Android smartphones.

“Local newspapers are in retreat across the country so I wouldn't say that Lincolnshire is special in this respect,” says Ionescu, who turned 31 last week. “I think that in pretty much every city where there is not a pure digital player there is space for a digital-only business. That was the ethos behind us – that we could have a digital-only news business which is sustainable by itself rather than depending on the classifieds like the papers did.”

Freed from the legacy media costs of printing and physical distribution, sites such as BuzzFeed and HuffPost have made major inroads in global news publishing. But at a local level, such changes have been less obvious, as have been the financial rewards.

The Lincolnite and its sister titles, which are collectively published by Stonebow Media (of which Ionescu is managing director), have taken an innovative commercial approach which is distinct from that of most traditional local media businesses.

For example, the digital native company hosts Lincolnshire Tech Week, a conference and expo held in conjunction with the business development department at Lincolnshire County Council. Its events team has for three years hosted the Lincolnshire Digital Awards, which attracts an audience of around 300. And the Lincolnshire Business Expo, held at Lincolnshire Showground, is the biggest B2B event in the county, with an attendance of 1200.

Battling for ad revenue

This emphasis on tech and business is important to Stonebow’s positioning as a regional leader in digital media. In winning advertising revenues, it has to be patient in developing relationships with local companies in explaining the benefits of good digital marketing. “We have had quite a mission to work with marketing people to start understanding better how to design for the web and interpret the results,” Ionescu concedes. “I think things have moved on because those who were in entry posts (when The Lincolnite launched in 2010) are in marketing manager positions now and they understand what we are talking about. The first few years were a different kind of experience.”

As regional marketers look for platforms for increasingly ambitious digital campaigns, the media that best understands that environment will prosper. Rather than carrying the programmatic advertising from national and global brands that is familiar to many users of local news sites, The Lincolnite focuses on building strong relations with a tight group of larger local advertisers.

“The difference in our approach is that we are using our own ad network instead of using Google AdWords or anything national, with the same ads tracking you all over the place.,” Ionescu says. “We have always had genuine local ads from genuine local companies.”

The result is a cleaner reading experience.

The Lincolnite has even developed a specialist jobs ad section of the site, which recalls the days when local media enjoyed healthy returns from classified ad sales. Ionescu says that the appeal to employers is the ability to access a pool of smart and digitally-engaged young jobseekers.

It would have been easy, natural almost, for a website founded by recently graduated students to aim for a youth niche, but The Lincolnite and its sister titles have developed a cross-generational appeal, even if a rump of 40% of readers are in the 18-35 demographic. “In the initial stages we had to focus on getting people in our generation to read us,” says the managing director. "But our no-nonsense tone has been just as easily digested by people of other generations, it wasn't something that they felt excluded from. And we are in a small city of 100,000 people and you can’t discriminate against other ages or you will quickly run out of audience.”

He says that the adoption of smartphones and Facebook accounts by generations that were raised on reading printed newspapers has been a significant factor in The Lincolnite’s growth. Facebook, where The Lincolnite has more than 81,000 likes, is easily the most effective platform for driving readers back to the main site, accounting for 45% of total traffic.

Competing with traditional media

All of this is challenging for Lincolnshire’s traditional media. In news terms, The Lincolnite competes with BBC Radio Lincolnshire. But its most obvious rival, commercially and editorially, is The Lincolnshire Echo, a paper with 124 years of history, now published by Trinity Mirror.

The Echo’s modern story is typical of much of the UK local press, and it switched from daily publishing to weekly in 2011. Since the start of the year, the Echo and other Trinity Mirror papers in the region have been produced without a traditional editor and its ABC circulation figure of 14,150 is down 10.8% year-on-year.

The title’s progress has not been helped by the disruption of having a succession of owners; in a short period of time it has been passed from Northcliffe Media to Local World to Trinity Mirror. The latter operates a powerful network of websites, including some of the biggest in UK regional media. Some of this expertise is being passed to Lincolnshire Live, which launched in October, rolling together the digital operations of the Echo, Trinity Mirror’s Target series of newspapers (in towns such as Boston and Grantham) and the Retford Times. Lincolnshire Live has hit 3.2m monthly page views (although its 31,000 likes on Facebook is substantially less than the Lincolnite’s following).

The Trinity Mirror response could be reason for Stonebow to be concerned.

But Ionescu remains upbeat. “It hasn’t been a battle of life and death (with the Echo) because we have always had the digital edge and they have tried to milk the print as much as they could,” he says. ComScore data shows Lincolnshire Live to be far ahead of The Lincolnite in traffic – but Ionescu says that this is because it does not subscribe to ComScore services and that Google Analytics is its true measure.

The antipathy between the new and established media outlets was obvious in a complaint made by the Echo to the Advertising Standards Authority earlier this year over The Lincolnite’s claims on its website to be the bigger player. The claim was withdrawn before the ASA investigated.

Although Stonebow is operating at a small loss, Ionescu explains this as a result of heavy reinvestment in the company, with new staff being taken on and £40,000 spent on website development. Turnover is set to show a marked uplift this year.

An example to other students

The Lincolnite, unlike most local media, is expanding. Fish and Brandrick no longer work for the business and Ionescu has a co-director, Dean Graham, who joined in 2013. The publisher employs specialists in account management, design, events and videography, as well as reporters and editors.

It all begs the question as to why more digitally-native student journalists, hundreds of whom emerge each year from university and college courses, don’t go ahead with becoming disruptors to their own local media sectors.

In answering that question, Ionescu looks back to the time when he and his young colleagues spent their first summer as graduates exploring their publishing ambitions, before taking funding from the university’s graduate enterprise programme and plunging in full time.

“You had to get out of your comfort zone and learn super quick – nobody teaches you in journalism about selling adverting and doing invoices. We had to develop in multiple ways, not just journalistically,” he says.

“Then you need to take a lot of risks and big leaps of faith, when you move from your first website that you have done in-house and hire an external web development agency and pour in tens of thousands of pounds and take bank loans. A lot of (local digital-only publishers) are one-man operations and these can be very hard decisions to make.”

Nonetheless, as The Lincolnite shows, it can be done.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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