Merger, closure or rebirth – what next for The People?

Trinity Mirror‘s national newspaper bosses this week vowed to meet the challenges faced by The People ‘head on”, as questions were raised over the title’s future in the wake of editor Mark Thomas’s departure.

Senior executives from the Daily Mirror have now taken the helm at the title. Former News of the World chief reporter Thomas, who has also been investigations editor at the Daily Mirror, departed abruptly last week after four and half years at the helm.

During that time sales have dropped from 1,102,109 to the current figure of 696,091.

Most of the red-top experts quizzed by Press Gazette this week didn’t blame him for the decline, but instead pointed the finger at the level of investment from Trinity Mirror.

In September 2004, 16 journalists were made redundant at The People in order, Trinity Mirror said, for the paper to have a bigger budget to spend on marketing.

In October 2005, 14 editorial staff were cut from The People making a total editorial headcount now of around 80.

Current acting editor of The People is Daily Mirror assistant editor (production) Lloyd Embley. He is being assisted by Daily Mirror head of news Gary Jones who is also on secondment at the title.

Mirror Group’s managing editor nationals Eugene Duffy said: ‘This is about the future of The People, a title that still outsells five other newspapers in the Sunday market – a fact that commentators should take note of before they pour scorn on or sound the paper’s death knell.

‘The People publishes in a highly competitive marketplace which presents many challenges. However, we will meet these head on in order to continue to serve the needs of both our readers and advertisers.”

Bleak

British Journalism Review editor and former People editor Bill Hagerty said: ‘The future must be very bleak. For years it has suffered under-investment from a succession of proprietors, and just as importantly it failed to rediscover its own identity.

‘It once had an identity as a great investigative newspaper and it was a great newspaper for sport. Various editors including me and the late Richard Stott tried very hard to re-establish that, but there were so many editors with the editorship being chopped and changed for various reasons.

‘There was never long enough for it to settle down. Maxwell said he would give me the time to do this, but he died and then David Montgomery’s people came in and immediately chased back down the route of being in the shadow of the News of the World. You can never match the News of the World at what it does.

‘I think it is much too late. There are radical thoughts about what to do with it, but I don’t think Trinity Mirror will invest.

‘You would need millions to give it a new look, get a web presence and all those things.”

Merger

Phil Hall, former News of the World editor and current chairman of PR agency Phil Hall Associates, worked at The People from 1985 for seven years as chief reporter and news editor.

He said: ‘The People has a very difficult future ahead of it because it’s at that level where it must be close to a break-even price. I would have thought its future would be to merge it with the Sunday Mirror.

‘It wouldn’t mean the Sunday Mirror’s circulation going up by 700,000, but it would mean it increasing by 300,000 to 350,000.

‘It would be the end of this great newspaper, which would be a terrible shame, but I can’t see any other option for it in the long-term unless Trinity invests in it. I think it is a very strong possibility.

‘There’s no point in putting in talented people like Lloyd Embley and Gary Jones if you are not going to put money behind them.

‘They are both brilliant journalists, but they need support and investment.

‘You just can’t produce good newspapers with very few staff and no purchasing power as far as your budgets are concerned.

‘It would need in the region of £3m to £4m a year extra investment and Trinity Mirror’s record for investment is not good. Unless it changes its habits of the past 10 years I can’t see anything happening.

‘It hasn’t the ability to go out there and buy stories like most Sunday newspapers do. When I was at The People we were the third paper, but we had sufficient resources to make sure we could compete.

‘The News of the World has something like three times as many news and feature reporters. The Sunday Mirror has got more staff and more resources. There is no marketing for The People at all and previous editors before Mark Thomas always had DVDs or giveaways.”

Heavy cuts

Former News International Scotland executive turned PR man Jack Irvine said: ‘Clearly the cuts have gone way beyond the flesh and into the bone, and once you cut to the bone there is no way back.

‘You might have to put £25m or £50m into it, and it would need a massive marketing campaign and great stories, which you have to pay for.”

Investment needed

Garry Bushell, a columnist at The People from 2001 to 2007, said: ‘Of course it could be a great paper, but it needs some serious investment. It’s managed decline; it’s almost as if it has expected it to decline. It’s a terrible waste and a terrible shame.

‘It’s treated as the runt of the litter in the Mirror Group and the management really needs a kick up the arse – it has really let the paper down, it has let the people that work there down and it has let the readers down.

‘When you see the amount of sales it has lost it’s heartbreaking… I’ve spoken to senior people there and they all say they are frustrated with the lack of investment.

‘When was the last time you remember seeing a People advert on telly? I think it was 2002.”

When Press Gazette put some of these suggestions to Trinity Mirror, director of communication Nick Fullagar said: ‘We don’t run loss-making titles and we are not about to. The People is a huge player in the marketplace and it makes money.

‘People who sit there in their armchairs, who have never run a newspaper business, don’t have a foot in the real world in terms of understanding what the challenges are for newspapers in today’s market.”

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