No end to minus misery

The regional ABC figures make sobering reading for anyone involved in daily papers. True, there were some success stories, with the weeklies continuing to post strong figures, and dailies such as the South Wales Argus bucking the trend.

But very few of the dailies were able to grab that elusive plus sign to go in front of their figure – and that does not look like changing in the foreseeable future.

As Mark Dickinson, experienced editor of the Liverpool Echo, admitted to Press Gazette last month while being interviewed on his paper’s relaunch: “I don’t think anybody is going to reverse something which has gone on for so long, and it’s to do with the way people are living their lives now.”

One of the concerns for editors must be their marketing spend. When things get tough, the marketing budget is one of the early figures to get slashed – and this only makes it more difficult to get your newspaper into readers’ hands.

Ironically, newspaper groups are the first to explain to their own advertisers how important it is to keep their name out there in a recession, but are loathe to follow their own advice and put their money where their mouths are.

The other thing of note in the latest figures is the actively purchased trend.

When I reviewed the figures six months ago, I picked out several newspapers with poor figures in that column and said it was worth keeping an eye on them to see if they would start following the industry trend of shedding bulk sales.

Admittedly, six months is not a huge amount of time to make a big impact – but the actively purchased figure for several newspapers has actually got marginally worse during that period.

That includes the Doncaster Star (82 per cent this time as opposed to 83 per cent), the Yorkshire Evening Post (89 per cent/90 per cent), Reading Evening Post (83 per cent/84 per cent), the Sheffield Star (93 per cent/94 per cent), the Leicester Mercury (92 per cent/94 per cent) and Belfast’s Sunday Life (93 per cent/95 per cent). The Belfast Telegraph has stayed the same at 90 per cent.

The success stories in this very specific category are the Manchester Evening News (93 per cent this time as opposed to 90 per cent), the Southern Daily Echo (92 per cent/91 per cent) and the Glasgow Herald, which has gone from 93 per cent to a perfect 100 per cent.

Interestingly, both the MEN and the Hull Daily Mail feature in the list of top regional evenings ranked by actively purchased growth.

This is despite the fact that the MEN still has a relatively high bulk sale figure, although clearly moving in the right direction, and Hull’s figure has actually got worse -92 per cent this time as opposed to 95 per cent six months ago.

There is nothing more irritating for editors than to see their base sale figures with pluses in front of them, but their more commonly quoted ABC figures with minuses.

MEN editor Paul Horrocks and his team must be congratulated for producing some of the best circulation figures his newspaper has seen for a long time. Many of his colleagues on metropolitan evenings would be glad of an ABC of –2.6 per cent and an actively purchased growth of 0.8 per cent.

The only other figure which leaps off the page is the column containing the Birmingham Post.

Not only does it have the fourth worst ABC figure in its smallish sector (–4.4 per cent, behind The Western Mail’s –5.5 per cent, the Yorkshire Post’s –4.6 per cent and The Northern Echo’s –4.8 per cent) but its actively purchased figure has slumped from 83 per cent to 80 per cent – the lowest figure in a list of 100 daily and Sunday papers.

It has always been a mystery in my newspaper lifetime how a morning paper serving a conurbation the size of Birmingham can sell so few papers.

One can only hope new editor Fiona Alexander gets the paper right and is then given some money to promote it. In her favour, I always think it is better to take on something that is suffering so badly as, realistically, there is only one way to go.

A new editor with experience of the area and bundles of enthusiasm is just what the title needs at this time – and I wish her well.

Oh how I laughed when I saw Press Gazette’s splash a few weeks ago detailing No 10’s plans for a new deal for regional journalists.

Anyone who has been around for a while will know that these pronouncements, just like editorial investment, are cyclical.

Coincidentally, I am sure, they are made when the Government is struggling somewhat – maybe having problems with our troublesome colleagues on those nasty national newspapers, or even, God forbid, the BBC.

We can all quote the regional press’s excellent readership figures and trustworthiness until the cows come home – or the Tories put up a credible opposition – but it will make no difference.

Governments are blind to this, and intoxicated by the national media arena. Even though the vast majority of MPs represent constituencies outside of the M25, they are inherently metrocentric when it comes to worrying about getting their message across in newspapers.

If they are being honest, they would rather see one good headline in a national paper than 100 in local papers. More fool them.

Ihave received some amusing feedback after my last column about job cuts in the regional newspaper industry. Although I went through several key roles and described how vulnerable they might be in the present climate, it was the assistant editor (brackets) that caused the most reaction.

Several people with exactly that title dropped me an e-mail to ask me if I knew something they didn’t about their current position – all with tongue in cheek and only the slightest whiff of any kind of unease.

One regional newspaper editor told me that the column came out the week he was interviewing to fill his assistant editor’s post and so told the applicants that he was only taking them on so he could get rid of them later when things got even tougher.

He was joking… I think.

But thanks must go to Mike Norton, editor at the Derby Evening Telegraph, who wrote assuring me that one of his former seasoned staff knew a guy on a national tabloid who, having fallen from grace, was awarded the new job title of night editor (furniture).

I’m not sure if his responsibilities included the actual desks and chairs or the copy that goes around the main feature on a page, but either way I rest my case.

One of the jobs that disappeared off the scene many years ago in most offices was a proofreader.

Now many evening papers appear to use the first edition to proof their paper, and even mornings and weeklies, which should arguably have more time, can miss out on this vital role.

In case anyone is thinking of re-introducing the role they should be wary of where they get their proofreaders.

As Private Eye pointed out last week, a proofreading course certificate included the phrases “Ensuring a piece makes it’s points clearly” and “common problems of grammer and spelling”. 

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Chris Shaw

by Alison Hastings

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