The independent title that turned a profit after being taken over by the editor

By Nico Johnson, editor of the Purbeck Gazette

Delivering the 2011 Guardian Lecture, former regional editor Neil Fowler called for local titles to be returned to local ownership, suggesting the likes of Newsquest and Trinity Mirror be allowed to have an “orderly default on their debts”.

Word in the city is that print is dead, or at least in its final throes, but is this more a case of a lack of funds to gold-plate the offices of management?

Bucking the trend is a south coast regional joyously unencumbered by layers of grey-suited management. In southern Dorset you’ll find The Purbeck Gazette, originally started by the Purbeck community in 1998 in response to the “forced” closure of the Purbeck Independent in the early 1990s.

The Independent was a locally-owned paper that had been running in competition with one of Newsquest’s Advertiser titles.

Having dug too deep into the Advertiser’s revenue stream, Newsquest struck back – offering below-cost advertising rates, and printing reams of community editorial in order to sink the Independent.

Without the backing of an American conglomerate, the paper sank without a trace. Newsquest then bought the paper, put its rates back up and cut the community editorial. The local population lost its voice.

The Purbeck Gazette brought that voice back, gradually increasing in pagination and popularity during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The original owner retired in 2004 and sold it to Tindle Newspapers. But with the arrival of the suits from Tindle, the Purbeck Gazette slowly slid down the road to failure.

Costs rose, pagination decreased and advertisers, once loyal to ‘heir’ local paper, fled.

In 2010 the title ended up in my hands. I had worked at the Purbeck Gazette since 2001, watching in frustration as the cogs of ‘big business’ turned, stripping the Gazette of any possibility of turning a profit.

When I finally took control in April 2010, I knew the only chance of survival was to run the business backwards – to stop chasing the ever-elusive profit margins, and to focus instead on giving the community what it wanted.

Six months after taking over, the Purbeck Gazette was running at a profit. Pagination went from 32 pages under Tindle to a regular 68-72 pages.

Advertisers flooded in, and rather than hiking rates in order to grab a quick buck, rates were held at 2009 levels in order to support the community and make advertising affordable for small, local businesses.

Community writers were welcomed, and volunteers utilised, thus maintaining the aspect of ‘community ownership’ and increasing local brand awareness and loyalty.

Two years after taking on ownership of the Purbeck Gazette, we are continuing to make a profit.

The Purbeck Gazette has a reputation for telling it like it is, and offers a wide range of community support. The small office not only publishes the Purbeck Gazette and the Purbeck Guidette (continuing to publish completely in-house, with a team of three), but also acts as a community hub, offering advice, assistance, networking and liaising services to the community as a whole.

Larger companies and agencies are now realising the power of “going local”, with Newspaper Society research showing that consumers react far more strongly to hyper-local advertising.

Several large companies are now choosing to support the Purbeck Gazette and its working ethos deliberately, with the complimentary knock-on effect that locals feel more likely to support these larger companies in return.

The public of today is far from stupid, and is becoming more intelligent by the day. With information overload a commonly utilised phrase, communities are turning to sources which they see as trustworthy.

This is no longer the traditional ‘big company’ with its self-important company line and its requirement to keep a hoard of middle managers comfortable;  it is more like the small, locally-owned company run by actual, contactable, real people.

Purbeck Gazette editor Nico Johnson

Having run successfully with huge amounts of community support for two years, the Purbeck Gazette is now facing the same end-game that the Purbeck Independent played nearly 20 years ago.

A recently re-launched Advertiser in the same region, with bumped-up pagination, newly-hired staff, company cars and an office refit show that Newsquest are gearing-up to squash some bugs again.

Having lost the majority of the local advertising revenue to the Purbeck Gazette, Newsquest seem to be attempting to ensure that they are the only “local” voice once more.

Printing 32 pages a week of editorial, with virtually no local advertising, is proof that the game is on.

In June 2012, we allowed columnist David Hollister (once Director of the Purbeck Independent) to publish an open letter to Newsquest within the Purbeck Gazette.

David asked Newsquest why it felt it doesn’t have enough money, and why it wished to make more at a detrimental cost to the community they purport to serve.

The community response to Hollister’s letter was a 10 per cent hike in unsolicited advertising revenue coming in to the Gazette during a time of national financial hardship.

The Purbeck Gazette is not backed by billions of dollars – it covers its costs from month to month, borrowing nothing along the way.  As your bank manager will tell you, this is the basic ethos of any successful, responsibly-run business.

The community served by the Purbeck Gazette support this ideology, and feel part of the business when they advertise within the Gazette’s hallowed pages – they know they are paying towards the publication of the paper as opposed to keeping the editor’s new Merc on the road (you guessed it, I don’t have one).

Perhaps the ‘big boys’ could take a trip down memory lane, remembering the days when what was produced was of paramount importance – over and above the requirement of middle management to be dressed at Saville Row.

Given half a chance, most publications in existence should realistically be able to cover running costs if run by effective management. Those not doing so are either simply not wanted by the readership any longer, or are not run effectively as businesses.

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