THIS was a black week for evening papers. A week that could sound the death knell for the evening edition in cities all over this country and that could, in time, be recognised as the week that quality community news began to disappear from our streets.
This was the week that Trinity Mirror announced that the Coventry Evening Telegraph will no longer hit the shops as the people of that city head home from work — as it has for more than 60 years, sure as night follows day — but instead be sold in the mornings.
You'd be right in thinking there's something intrinsically wrong-sounding about that. Let me explain why.
The NUJ believes that the decision was only the tip of the iceberg. We fear that this trend is likely to sweep across the evening editions in cities such as Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and Bristol, spelling disaster for the papers and their staff and arguably, as sales inevitably slide, the end of the papers themselves.
But why should sales slide? The reason is obvious, or should be, but sadly the likes of Trinity Mirror, with its voracious appetite for a quick cut and a fast buck, appear to be either oblivious or indifferent.
Here is the stark truth that all newspaper reporters know, but many newspaper proprietors appear to have forgotten: yesterday's news served up tomorrow will not sell. News must be fresh, like fish, otherwise it stinks. In the gap between gathering the news of the day, printing it overnight and getting it into the reader's hand, the rot will have set in.
You may ask, I buy my national paper in the morning, why shouldn't these regional titles be the same? One big reason — the news in a national daily reports across several time zones and so can still surprise you when you get out of bed. America was still at work when you switched off the light.
But a city in Britain turns off the light at roughly the same time and by the time it gets up, it is not interested in what happened there yesterday, it is interested in the day ahead.
So why are they doing it? To cut the evening editions means you can dispense with most of your van drivers and save hundreds of thousands on distribution.
The need for a speedy team to get today's fresh news across the city for people to catch on their way home is gone — you can haul your old news around at a leisurely pace. Trouble is, no-one wants it anymore. The big newspaper corporations claim that they must make these cuts because of falling circulation and falling advertising revenues. It is true that the newspaper world is struggling with these twin evils. But it is also true — and proven — that they are best fought by improving the amount, quality and freshness of the news, not by reducing it and selling it stale. Yes, it takes investment; yes, it takes reporters, subs, production workers and van drivers, it always has; and yes, it works.
These corporations see their papers as a product. Fair enough, the idea is to make money, we all know that. But this is a unique kind of product, and it matters when we buy it.
A tin of beans is the same in the morning as it is in the evening, a newspaper is not. But if we accept — and we do — that a business must respond to the market and make adjustments when that market is weak, we do not accept that the answer is to attack the product itself and damage its chances of selling.
When the going gets tough, what manufacturer of baked beans, to stick with the analogy, decides to cut the beans, fill the can up with tomato sauce and sell it in fewer shops, only in the mornings and only when it is past its sell-by date?
They would improve the product, extend the distribution and market the product in way that showed they had real faith in it.
Real news has value, real news sells. But Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Johnston Press and the rest must realise that the clue is in the name. News! People want to know — they always have and they always will.
As owners of these proud evening papers, these media companies must hold their nerve and trust this old truth.
They must invest in their evening editions and reward and retain their skilled and committed staff — from journalists to van drivers.
This finely calibrated newspaper production chain has been strengthened over decades to produce quality news fast and fresh, i.e. the same day.
It must not be broken because of short-term panic or greed — it will bring in the rewards only if it provides the quality newspapers people want, at a time they want to read them.