How Archant plans to make London pay

In
a city where the population is transient and communities diverse, Sarah
Lagan talks to free newspaper pioneer Enzo Testa about ways of tackling
the paid-for sector’s decline in sales

ARCHANT LONDON’S new
state-of-the-art headquarters in Ilford has a “sophisticated internal
climate control system” to keep the air circulating. But that is
unlikely to stop those in management getting hot under the collar over
circulation figures.

Sales on news trade are down nearly 13 per cent in some parts of the
capital. In Archant’s stable these include the Newham Recorder series,
which has slipped 12.5 per cent, and the Dartford Times series, down
12.8 per cent.

Widespread stripping out of bulk sales is a factor for other drops in circulation, but by no means accounts for it all.

Publishers
are finding London a hard nut to crack for a number of reasons. The
city has an ethnically diverse population, which is also increasingly
transient – particularly as many born and bred Londoners reach the age
of retirement and move out. And then there’s the increasing competition
from other sources of news, such as the internet and free newspapers.

The
man drafted in to meet this challenge as managing director of Archant’s
new London division is Enzo Testa – who, with former business partner
Keith Barwell, launched the Bedfordshire Journal in 1977 and went on to
develop the free group Herald Newspapers, which was later sold to Home
Counties Newspapers.

It’s been almost a year and a half since
Archant’s acquisition of 27 London weeklies from Independent News &
Media but it wasn’t until the Competition Commission gave the go-ahead
in October that the group could start making its mark.

Testa –
who joined Archant in 1998 when it bought Eastern Counties Newspapers,
where he was managing director of its west division – is optimistic
about the future.

“We are extremely confident that all our paid-for circulations will go up next year. I’m absolutely positive about it,” he says.

Faced
with competition from the internet and proliferating free newspapers,
he thinks the biggest challenge is getting the paper into the hands of
readers.

“People’s habits have changed, the economy is getting
tighter,” he explains. “That’s why paid-fors have struggled since the
launch of frees, along with the media fragmenting. We’d all love to
launch a paid-for tomorrow and sell 70,000 copies but I don’t think
that’s feasible anymore.

“In London, particularly, it’s become an
even biggerfactor in that demographics have changed, people come and go
and move about a lot.

“That’s what makes it exciting. It’s a publishing challenge for us.”

Testa’s
plan is to turn struggling paid-for titles into a mix of paid-for, free
and pick-up (or “self select” as he puts it), while fully embracing the
internet. He has used this strategy for the Tottenham and Wood Green
Journal, whose circulation is around 2,500.

“In Tottenham we
decided that no matter what we did, we couldn’t increase the
circulation by 10,000 copies so in those areas we’ve supplemented the
paidfor title to 20,000 people. It’s not affected our ABC sales figure,
which is tremendous.” Sales did go down by around 100 after they rolled
out for free two months ago.

Testa is also sure that Archant will
be able to attract new readers, despite the transient nature of
London’s population. “I believe life is local and the only thing we
need to concentrate on is a mechanism with which to reach that
audience,” he says. “If we gave them out we know people will read them,
so its not a case of they don’t have time, it’s more a question of
whether they still go to a newsagent or a supermarket to buy their
paper.”

He points out that the titles Archant acquired from
IN&M were in need of investment at every level – from new editorial
equipment and the refurbishment of all ten London offices to editorial
salary rises, training and digital cameras.

Relaunches planned include one for the Hackney Gazette, whose sales have dipped 8.7 per cent since last year.

Many
of Archant’s new titles, including the Romford Recorder, have had an
injection of more grass roots, local news and junior sports coverage.

Testa
is also well aware that one size can no longer fit all, so he intends
to create separate editions and magazines and bring out different
products for different communities. These will include separate
property editions and magazines.

East London, with its
demographic changes and diverse ethnic community, presents a problem,
he admits, citing the East London Advertiser series’ 8.8 per cent
plunge in news trade.

To get to grips with this, research has
been commissioned by the Future Foundation and the paper has a new
editor, Malcolm Starbrook, brought in from Press Gazette where he was
chief sub.

“Tower Hamlets is the classic area and we’re spending a lot of money on research,” says Testa.

“It
goes from core East London, Kray territory through huge changes in the
local community to the Docklands area with gated security houses and
chauffeur parking.

“We’re not going to reach all these with one paper, but different products might for more specific markets.

We want to do some niche layering of the market and we have some launches on the horizon.”

There is also talk of a pan-London title taking the best out of the group’s existing weeklies.

“We’ve
got 170 editorial staff in London and we have considered we could do
something else – it’s a lot of resource and local knowledge and it
covers a huge swathe of London. It’s possible for us to take the best
from each of our 27 titles and produce another title to layer the
market, with maybe a commuter feel to it.”

Testa is clearly
looking forward to getting his teeth into making improvements and
turning round the decline. “Come back in a year when we have had time
to do it and it will be a different story,” he says.

“We have new
challenges ahead and tremendous opportunities. London is a market where
you can try new things, be entrepreneurial on a bedrock of strong
weekly papers.”

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