We live in an age where newspaper stalwarts like The Independent ditch print in favour of becoming a digital-only title. An age in which the fresh-faced, compact daily The New Day couldn’t last longer than two months before being wrapped up after disappointing sales.

Over the past two years, Populus has conducted qualitative research projects on behalf of newspaper titles all over the UK. In that time, we’ve learned a lot about the decline of print. We understand these are tough times for newspapers. Budgets are strained, time is short and the competition is fierce. But in spite of the challenges, it’s a little early for the print industry’s final curtain call.

We know from our discussions with people that they still value print journalism, and we think there are some simple steps that print titles can take to ensure they still deliver readers their informative, entertaining and relevant perspective well into the future.

Existential challenges

Traditional print journalism is facing many existential challenges. The arrival of the smartphone, which is always to hand, means we have a limitless stream of information at our fingertips. Consumers expect information to be free and instant. The response has been for print to polarise.

On the one hand, there has been a renaissance in terms of premium print offerings. Coffee table tomes abound, as do photo books and lifestyle magazines that emphasise the physicality and beauty of the print object in itself.

On the other, free titles like the Metro and the Evening Standard increased their circulation in recent years, building on their monopoly of the urban commuter stuck without a phone signal.

Free print titles embrace the incidental, the instant and the throwaway. People are willing to pay £10 for a magazine, and pick up a free Metro between Hammersmith and Kings Cross. They are less willing to pay for mid-market titles that are neither objects of desire or throwaway freebies.

Competitive checklist

For many mid-market titles the answer is obvious; if you can’t sell as many papers… embrace digital. But how can you compete in such a saturated space? Newspapers need to ask themselves why potential readers would want to come to them over Buzzfeed. Regrettably, you’re never going to be Buzzfeed. But you can make digital work hand in hand with your print offering.

Leveraging our experience working with local and national titles, we think there are four things you need to do well in order to make digital work as a mid-market newspaper title.

Firstly, have a voice. Understand your readers’ opinions, concerns and hopes, and then project that understanding whenever the title speaks. Reflect the unique perspective of your readers, be it regional, political or cultural. A strong voice helps a title stand apart from the white noise of online content.

Sound investment

Be proud of your journalistic authority. Consumers respect print journalists’ unique perspectives on controversial and divisive issues. In defiance of the pressure on editorial budgets, investing in good journalism can differentiate print titles from the free-for-all of retweets and amateur bloggers. At best, good journalism can give a title a weight readers are willing to pay for.

Print and digital can be symbiotic. A newspaper’s print and digital presence should complement each other while playing to their own individual strengths. Yet many titles struggle to make this work. Inconsistency between your printed pages and digital footprint can undermine both. Avoid cutting and pasting copy; consider the message and the medium.

Digital experience has evolved a lot in recent years. Consumers are digitally savvy, so limiting your digital offer to a website that looks like a message board from 2004 isn’t best practice. Consider ways of integrating your print and online experience, paying special attention to mobile. Print can be the doorway to digital content, and vice versa.

Make yourself visible

Lastly, be convenient and make it easy for people to see you. There is no getting around the fact that consumers are used to convenience, which underpins the success of free papers. So go with it. This means being present at the times and locations people want to read the news. Make it easy for people to find you on social media and cross-pollinate your online content with existing social media pages your readers frequent. Go precisely where your readers want you to go, be it the bus stop, the pub or the football.

This is not an easy game to play. We are not saying that applying these learnings will guarantee the kind of increases in circulation that give shareholders heart palpitations. We are saying consumers are not giving up on newspapers that have represented everyday people for centuries, but they do expect them to adapt to their changing lives.

The stakes are high and the challenges are relentless, but we believe in our hearts that print newspapers can evolve and that they’re worth saving.