Belfast: excitement and trepidation

GETTING
THE editor’s chair of one of the heavyweight daily regional papers is
always going to result in a mixture of excitement and slight
trepidation.

When that paper is the iconic Belfast Telegraph and
you are following in the footsteps of a regional legend such as Ed
Curran, there is even more reason to want to get off to a flying start.

And so it came to pass for new BT editor Martin Lindsay.

It
helps that Lindsay is acknowledged as one of the nicest men in the
business – and works in a centre which is renowned for its hospitality.

When
I worked for Thomson Regional Newspapers’ head office in the ’90s, one
of my roles was to make regular visits to the editors and MDs in the
centres.

Regardless of what time you arrived in Belfast (and it was usually long before lunch) the drinks cabinet was opened.

And
if it was an overnighter the exec team made sure you had a grand night
out and could remember little of the important discussions of the day
when you got back to Swiss Cottage.

That Martin, Ed and Jim
Flanagan (now newly installed as editor of Lindsay’s old paper, Sunday
Life) could wake at the crack of dawn, bright eyed and bushy tailed to
get papers out in the most dangerous city on my rounds, while I felt
queasy on the flight home, has always stuck with me.

Lindsay was
only three weeks into his new role at the BT when George Best died.
Sales of the traditional evening broadsheet and newish tabloid morning
went up 4,600.

On the day of the funeral, the BT was able to use
its Saturday football paper (one of the few left) to devote to the
events of the day. The 36-pager included five pages of tributes from
readers who had used the internet to ‘pen’ their thoughts on their hero.

With
every member of staff wanting to be involved in some way – and many of
the reporting team too young to remember Best in his heyday – the team
effort resulted in a tripling of the normal sales figure to 18,000.

Now
all Lindsay has to work out is how to match those figures year on year…
TIMES HAVE rarely been tougher for the regional press – and with
advertising beginning to migrate elsewhere, businesses are focusing
closely on “discretionary spend”.

This management mantra means:
don’t spend a bean unless you absolutely have to – and can prove it
will bring more beans back into the business.

One of the first
things to suffer under this regime is training – especially that which
involves the double whammy of having to shell out for courses and
conferences that take you away from the coalface.

And while this
is understandable in an industry that is as familiar with short-termism
as a government seeking election every five years, it does mean that
valuable thinking time gets lost.

One such annual event, which is
probably needed more now than at any time in the past 20 years, is the
Newspaper Society’s Circulation, Editorial and Promotion Conference.

Yes,
advertising is vital, but if those three parts of the business are not
performing we might as well all shut up shop and head for the hills.

The
conference, in Manchester on 27 March, has a host of speakers including
Trinity Mirror’s newspaper sales director Matt Harrison, who will be
looking at using newspaper retailing to drive casual sale. There’s also
a whistlestop tour of alternative routes to market, plus Tesco’s boss
of news and magazines sharing its regional strategy with the audience.

The
thorny issue of editionising – should you cut them out or add them in?
– is also on the agenda and the closing address is by former Associated
circulation boss Mark Challinor, who is always challenging.

I
should declare an interest as I am chairing a panel of editors,
including Paul Horrocks of the Manchester Evening News, who will be
talking about the way forward. The panel will be open to questions.

So,
unlike the excellent Society of Editors’ conference last October, where
hardly any regional editors were allowed out of the office, get on the
M62 and let’s see if we can collectively ensure we start reading some
good news stories about our own industry sooner rather than later.

THE
ABC figures for the last six months of the year are out at the
beginning of March – and already newspaper groups are looking at how to
sell their stories surrounding them. Of particular interest will be
recent relaunches – including the Birmingham Evening Mail.

The
paper only relaunched – after more major investment by Trinity Mirror –
towards the end of last year, so did not have much time to gather speed.

But
rumours remain rife in the industry that it did not go as well as
hoped. I’d like to be able to tell you how good or bad it is
officially, but Birmingham were staying uncharacteristically
tight-lipped on the subject.

New editor Steve Dyson was
everywhere at the time of the launch – conferences, media sections etc.
– describing the thinking behind the plans, but his head office is keen
to wait until the figures are out before any more is said on the
subject.

So far the gossip suggests that the Mail’s sister paper,
the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, is now selling more base sale
copies, despite having a much smaller geographic footprint.

It’s
also been said that the new look has not gone down well with elderly,
loyal readers (always a potential danger when going for a radical
redesign), but that the figures began to steady at the beginning of
December.

And the ABC figures won’t show it this time, but it
will be vital that readers come back strongly after the
uncharacteristically long Christmas break.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

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