Sales and morale are up? Call in the consultants

THE USE of consultants, most recently at some of Northcliffe’s daily titles, continues to draw comments from the industry.

Insiders
at the papers are leaking information on the somewhat unusual methods
Effective Consulting has of working out what everyone is actually doing
all day long.

Of course this comes as no surprise to many Trinity
Mirror employees, who had the company crawling all over the newsrooms
and mapping out workflows and the like, a couple of years ago.

There
are two common ways of regarding consultants (and I should know, as I
have had to “welcome” them into my newsroom as well as become one of
the dreaded species myself in the past three years).

First,
the natural and pessimistic inclination of many human beings is to
resist change and be highly suspicious of what consultants might say
about you and your operation.

The second way is to be
optimistically stoical and hope they will come up with fantastic
recommendations you had not thought of yourself which will make your
life, and that of all your staff, easier.

Taking the first
approach: it is naive to underestimate the suspicion which will
surround the introduction of consultants into a newsroom. One cannot
ignore the fact that most editors and their senior teams can verge on
being arrogant, even in the face of shaky circulation figures. They
will believe they are putting out the very best newspaper in the land
and will hold this view dear whatever newspaper award judges think.

Look
at how they respond when an industry figure is asked to review their
papers (in Press Gazette for example). If anything less than favourable
is mentioned there is usually a letter of complaint winging its way
there before the next edition is out.

For staff, they will worry
what the use of consultants means for jobs, and on a personal basis,
what these people will think about their own work performance.

Every
newsroom has shirkers, and we all know who they are without a
consultant coming in, but they usually get away with it because
managers are crap at dealing with poor performers. For them, this may
be the end of the road. And even the good staff will lose confidence
and worry that someone may mark them down as unnecessary.

Add
into the mix the gossip, rumour and misinterpretation which surround
these events, and it’s not surprising most journalists will dread the
knock on the door from Effective and the like.

Taking in the
second view: most editors understand that newspapers have to evolve
continually to respond to what readers want. It’s a tough job, and it’s
not going to get any easier. If the company wants to pay for some
experts to come in and see if anything can be done quicker and better –
great!

It may even give them some ammunition to deal with the tiny minority of lazy buggers who they have just been too busy to tackle.

And
for the staff, it’s their chance to show what they can do, but also
learn new skills which help make the job more interesting.

There, that second view doesn’t sound so bad after all. What’s everyone worrying about?

The
problem is that most media groups only employ consultants when the
chips are down – and those chips could come in the form of circulation,
ad spend, margins or institutional shareholders’ views of the company’s performance.

When
the announcement of bringing in consultants is coupled with the news
that the company is looking at making big savings, or rationalising its
operation, is it any wonder that the pessimistic view prevails?

Having
said that, I am occasionally asked by companies to come in and look at
an aspect of their operation just because they are interested in
another objective view – there is no agenda, no looming job cuts: they
just want to continually improve what they do.

Even then you will
get suspicious staff, but depending on your reputation, most are likely
to welcome and work with you in that climate.

So maybe firms
should look at investing in these expensive people (another
understandable cause of resentment by newsrooms) when things are going
well. After all, this positive, constructive approach is common in
other industries.

Then, if you need to call the consultants back when things are tougher, the decision might go down better with editorial.

Regional
journalists will have been poring over the latest six-monthly
circulation figures in the hope of some crumbs of comfort.

It’s
been another difficult period for many weeklies, but mornings and
Sundays are generally having a stable time. As ever, it is the large
evening paper list which makes the most interesting read.

Both
Manchester and Belfast have done well on the back of new morning
editions, but that’s not necessarily easy to emulate if you already
have one or are in a multi-title centre.

That’s one reason why my
old paper, the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, should be congratulated
on a very impressive figure of 0.8% on base sale.

With a strong
morning paper in The Journal, there is no easy win in printing extra
early. And the football team may have had the odd scandal, as ever, but
there is no cup or league success to point at.

Still, with the paper due to go up five pence last week, it will be tough to maintain.

Carlisle,
the fastest growing evening paper, also points to quick success with
earlier editions, and other good circulation figures have been produced
by Barrow, Bournemouth, Gloucestershire, Hartlepool, Scarborough,
Stoke, Southampton, York, Torquay, Newport and Greenock.

On the downside, there are several papers with figures that must make for some buttock- clenching chat in exec meetings.

Even
if you are up against good numbers for the same time last year,
Norwich’s 10.2 per cent does look scary. When you add into the mix that
this is on the back of a big relaunch, and presumably a
bigger-thanusual marketing spend, it gets worse.

Evening News
editor David Bourn, formerly of the Chronicle in Newcastle, hit the
headlines earlier this year when he appeared to ditch breaking news.

Of
course, this was not the full story, but nevertheless the redesign was
brave, moving slightly upmarket with more emphasis on analysis and
entertainment.

The saving grace for Bourn may well be that his
evening sister paper down the road in Ipswich also recorded ghastly
figures (-10 per cent)n although what Archant boss John Fry and his
senior team will do about stemming the flow remains to be seen.

The
group is editorially better resourced than most, and Fry is an
extremely capable and supportive chief exec, so one can only assume
they have a plan.

The other paper with a former radical upmarket
redesign is the Argus in Brighton, which is still struggling at 11.1
per cent and, surprise, surprise, is going back to more community news.

And
in Birmingham, the evening and Sunday papers showed double-digit
decline while the morning improved by hugely increasing bulk sales.

But with new Midlands chiefs now settling in, big plans should also be unveiled there any day.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle Next Week: Chris Shaw

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