GMG & The Manchester Evening News: “C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre”

A few kind souls at Hold The Front Page are predicting what awaits employees of Guardian Media Group who will soon start working for Trinity Mirror:

‘For those who thought [GMG Regional Media chief executive Mark] Dodson was a ruthless hatchet man, you ain’t seen nothing yet…”

‘God help them….If they think they’ve been squeezed in the past, wait til TM get their mitts on them, then they will understand that it is possible to get blood out of a stone.”

Among other things, the perception that GMG’s regionals have already been ‘squeezed’by a ‘hatchet man’feeds into the suggestion that the Manchester Evening News and its stablemates have been plundered relentlessly to sustain outsized losses at the Guardian and the Observer.

Ratcheting up the rhetoric a notch or two, Ian King, at the Times, even suggests that ‘for many MEN staffers, the new owners could scarcely be worse than the old ones”.

The news coverage certainly suggests that cost cutting became endemic at GMG’s regionals during the late noughties. Disputes over job losses flared up repeatedly as revenues declined: in 2006, 2007 and again in 2009.

Yet the numbers in GMG’s annual reports suggest a different picture. Remarkably, GMG held operating costs at its regional newspapers static between 2004 and 2009. Year after year, as revenues and profits declined, GMG carried on ploughing the same amount — more than £100m a year — into reporting, presenting and distributing the news at its regionals.

The contrast between steady investment and the downward trajectory of operating profits during the same period is painful. (In the graph accompanying this piece, I’ve rebased both sets of numbers to 100 as of 2004 to make comparison easier).

GMG’s exit from the market is worrying for anyone who believes that sustained investment by large companies with deep pockets is the only thing that will save local journalism. The numbers suggest that GMG has been there, done that — and met with little or no success. The notion isn’t yet dead: but it has sustained serious damage.

Did GMG simply invest in the wrong stuff? Or were GMG’s regional journalists living in a relative paradise? I suspect that the commenters at HTFP are probably closer to the truth than the deputy business editor of the Times. Working for Trinity Mirror will be a whole lot different.

Bosquet, the French general, famously described the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 in the following terms: ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”.

No doubt Sly Bailey, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, thinks similarly about GMG’s recent track record as regional newspaper proprietor.

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