Editorial investment seen as key to return of weeklies' growth

By Dominic Ponsford

After a decade of circulation growth for Britain’s local paid-for weekly newspapers, the wheels seem to have come off their circulation juggernaught — for the time being at least.

Press Gazette’s analysis of their circulation figures for the last six months of 2005 reveals an overall circulation drop of 2 per cent to 5,445,665. And just 105 out of 418 titles put on sales.

It is the third six-month period in a row when the majority of weeklies have gone down in circulation.

The question facing newspaper editors up and down the country is why.

The worst-case scenario is that the internet has finally hit them, taking away readers for good.

The optimists hope that the flagging circulations are just an indication of a cyclical economic downturn.

Among the positives are the many extraordinary circulation success stories up and down the country, such as the Worksop Guardian, up 17 per cent yearon- year this time.

Overall the weekly market’s 2 per cent drop compares well to the 4.4 per cent average decline experienced by the evenings.

The Worksop Guardian’s sales boost from 15,124 to 18,434 was achieved by turning a free weekly sister title on the edge of its patch into a paid-for edition.

Editor George Robinson said: "The main reason our sales are doing so well is a good, strong, hard-working team of journalists.

"We took what was a fairly flimsy 28- page free paper and now readers are getting an 80-page, all singing, all dancing, paid-for paper."

The Norfolk-based Beccles and Bungay Journal was 9 per cent up yearon- year to 7,448 and is another to benefit from launching a new edition in a neighbouring patch.

Group editor Terry Redhead said: "The Beccles and Bungay Journal is very much a traditional weekly newspaper that aims to be at the heart of the community.

It now has three editions, one covering Beccles, one covering the neighbouring town of Bungay and a third serving the other major town on the patch, Halesworth.

"That community focus has paid dividends together with the added interest created by the title, which is promoting a Beccles v Bungay challenge — a series of inter-town quizzes and sporting challenges."

The Barnsley Chronicle was one of many titles to experience a sales dip this time round after a decade of consistent circulation growth. Its 0.3 per cent drop to 44,544 was still one of the best performances among the bigger titles.

Editor Robert Cockroft said: "We’ve been pondering it here a lot and the easy thing to say is that it’s the internet that has suddenly swept us all away.

"But we don’t believe that’s the case with an extremely local paper like ours.

In bigger city areas you can see some people might be satisfied getting their news elsewhere.

"We think it may be simply an economic thing — economic activity does seem to be slightly down."

Cockroft added that he believes the papers that are doing well are the ones which invest in journalists.

He said: "We are optimistic here because we have a lot of reporters and a busy news area.

"Looking around there seems to be a pretty close correlation between the papers that are cutting back on editorial and the ones that aren’t doing so well.

"We’ve got good reporters out there in the field, meeting people and bringing in stories.

"If you cut editorial, people are going to be given a slightly bland, Metro-like product, rather than something that reflects the character and heritage of the area."

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