'Overwhelming evidence' for regionals merger reform

The seven biggest regional newspaper publishers are this week presenting the government with “overwhelming evidence” that the current rules on local newspaper mergers are outdated.

The Local Media Alliance this week submits findings based on a survey of 5,000 local newspaper advertisers to the Office of Fair Trading.

The central argument of the report is that changes in the media landscape mean there is no longer any danger of newspaper monopolies leading to unfair competition for advertisers.

The LMA is a one-issue group set up to lobby for a change in the law on local newspaper ownership. It comprises the chief executives of Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest, Northcliffe Media, Guardian Media Group, Archant and DC Thomson as well as trade body the Newspaper Society.

Outgoing Johnston Press chairman Roger Parry, who is chairman of the group, told Press Gazette that the idea of the LMA survey was “to try to prove in hard economic terms the case that the old merger regime is no longer fit for purpose”.

Explaining the survey’s findings, he said: “It’s a lot more competitive as a marketplace. In the last five to 10 years there has been a very wide range of alternative advertising vehicles emerge.

“There are websites like Rightmove, Findaproperty, Monster and Autotrader – and there are also a lot of cheaply produced magazines and newspapers that estate agents and car dealers can do for themselves with digital printing.

“There’s also much more inventory available on local radio and outdoor which used to be too expensive for local advertisers but is now within their budget.

“We have to prove that all these advertising vehicles are options and the evidence is overwhelmingly that they are.”

Parry said he believed there was no case in editorial terms for saying that regional press mergers will harm plurality of coverage.

He said: “Every piece of evidence demonstrates that local editors remain locally autonomous.”

While relaxing the ownership rules “would make a very useful contribution” towards solving the problems currently facing the regional press, Parry said this was not the only answer.

In recent months, hundreds of editorial jobs have been cut by regional newspaper publishers, and dozens of titles have closed, as they have grappled with the challenges of long-term circulation decline, increasing online competition and a disastrous drop-off in advertising as a result of the recession.

This week, Trinity Mirror announced the closure of four weekly newspapers in the Midlands: Black Country Mail Extra, Wolverhampton AdNews, Daventry Post and Ashby Herald.

Parry said: “Local newspaper themselves have to develop a more viable hybrid model – a mix of newspaper, website, magazine and so on. It’s easier to do that if you have much larger groups with better access to resources.”

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