Relaunches show that there is more than one way to skin a cat

Two camps emerge in the redesign and editorial realignment of regional newspapers

EVERY FEW YEARS a new bit of research or a whizzy new press guru emerges, and papers gobble up the advice to help with the inevitable relaunch.

Although regional papers work in differing markets, a few general
themes will apply across the board – so you analyse the findings, pick
the bits you like and off you go.

But in the past 12 months there
appears to be a fairly significant divergence in views, leading to
relaunches falling crudely into two camps.

On one side is the
high story count, multiple edition, late off-stone, community-based
theory, and on the other is the moving slightly up-market, ditching
older readers, losing editions and briefs and becoming more lifestyle
orientated approach.

It all kicked off in Brighton a year ago,
where Newsquest wanted The Argus to reflect the younger, hipper ABC1
audience rather than all those pesky elderly C2DEs. According to their
brand manager in her presentation to the recent Newspaper Society
Conference in Birmingham, this has been a resounding success.

Unfortunately she left the stage before any of the audience could question her on sales figures, loss of editor etc.

About
a year later, the Norwich Evening News leapt into the ring with its
relaunch. After some heavyweight research it announced the decision to
move slightly upmarket and put more emphasis on analysis and
entertainment.

Editor David Bourn’s statement that they were less
worried about breaking news – as long as they could carry it on the
website – grabbed the headlines and got the industry talking about
whether this was fantastic or fantasy.

To round off came
Northcliffe’s Hull Daily Mail relaunch, again on the back of research,
which advocated going for big story and picture treatment, analysis,
and fewer digests, all in an effort to make the paper more compulsive
reading to selective and time-starved locals.

But while all this was happening, we had other papers either going tabloid or relaunching, but using the more traditional route.

The
Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough was one of the few “tabloid”
broadsheets left when it made the inevitable change to compact.

While
I have to admit to a fondness for the old look which the Newcastle
Evening Chronicle also enjoyed pre-1997, readers understandably found
it unwieldy.

Fortunately for the Gazette, its previous and
present editor had got the content right, so it was just a matter of
getting the design and flow spot on. Interestingly, the language of the
successful relaunch is not about fewer stories and editions or moving
upmarket.

In the words of editor Steve Dyson: “We are at the
heart and soul of the community. Our reporters have no shame in being
called community reporters.”

In effect the Gazette has continued
doing the basics – court reporting, campaigning and getting breaking
news into the paper to make it as up-to-the-minute as possible.

The first edition goes to press at a late 10.40am, and they can get news into the paper up to 3.15pm if necessary.

Emulating
this approach is the revamp of the Edinburgh Evening News. Editor John
McLellan is a wily character who has been around the block on a variety
of regional papers.

He
has watched the sales successes of papers like the Gazette and many
weeklies, and decided to mirror their community closeness. His plans
include a higher story count and homing in on more grassroots stories
on the patch.

To be fair to both sides, the differences are not as clear-cut as the headlines might suggest.

In
Hull, editor John Meehan has a healthy four-edition structure, and he
puts forward a strong argument for ditching some of the crap briefs
which appear in local papers up and down the land. He also has a
campaigning and community reputation which he has not thrown out with
the bathwater.

And in Norwich, they had watched the Brighton
experiment carefully. Bourn, who used to work with ex-Argus editor
Simon Bradshaw in Newcastle, said Brighton’s redesign was a brave move
but the paper lost its nerve when the sales figures failed to improve,
at least in the short term.

Bourn wants the Norwich Evening News
to retain its traditional readers. In an industry which loves to dwell
on other people’s misfortunes but hates admitting any of its own
problems, Bourn is refreshingly candid about the first few
uncomfortable weeks post relaunch, when they did appear to be turning
off a proportion of the oldest, most loyal readers.

Initial sales figures were disappointing, but he says these have improved with some good marketing initiatives.

So
which is the way to go? Inevitably it will be horses for courses, as it
ever was. No one would describe Middlesbrough as being a comparable
patch to Brighton.

But Edinburgh will probably provide the most
interesting case study. They could have gone either way – upmarket and
lifestyley to reflect the grandeur of the capital city – or
community-based, recognising the Trainspotting mixed area they really
serve.

Who turns out to be right remains to be seen. All
relaunches need at least a year, minimum, to bed down and get proper
reader reaction. The sales figures in 2006 should make for some
interesting analysis.

SOME snooty national media columnists have
complained about the amount of access regional hacks got to the big
political figures during the election campaign.

Admittedly it must be an unusual scenario for them to be left out in the cold while the regional boys and girls are coveted.

One
commentator went so far as to suggest this was a manipulative ploy by
the main parties, to serve themselves up only to those dumbwits from
the sticks who know much less about the political scene than their
superior national chums.

It may well be true that most regional
reporters are not obsessed by the weird and wacky world of Westminster.
They live in normal places, socialising with normal people, just like
the bulk of the electorate.

They also work for papers that tend
not to declare their political colours during an election campaign, so
do not feel compelled to stuff them full of stories which back up their
choice.

When they do get access to political heavyweights – and
according to many in the regional press, this was fairly hit-or-miss
depending on how many marginals you had on your patch – they took the
opportunity to ask them about local issues which would directly affect
their readers.

Michael Howard’s consummate press secretary Guy
Black will have known from his stint running the PCC how important
regional newspapers are.

And Labour was also on-message with the
regions for once, even if Prescott decided to slightly spoil their show
by accusing that tenacious reporter from the South Wales Argus of being
an amateur and to bugger off when he was asked a tough question.

“Regional
reporter in knowledgeable spat with Deputy Prime Minister”. Now that
would really make the headlines in the Westminster bubble.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk

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