Searching for a cure for local newspaper ills

Are cutbacks and job losses the only way
to save the regional newspaper industry? Sarah Lagan asks some players
in this sector if there are some alternative remedies

JIM CHISHOLM
is the principal of the Newspaper Consulting Group and strategy advisor
to the World Association of Newspapers, for whom he directs the project
“Shaping the Future of the Newspaper”: Once the toast of the newspaper
world in both journalism and advertising sales, the reputations of the
UK’s newspapers are now being tarnished by an unwillingness to change
and adopt the broader picture. Elsewhere across Europe are a rash of
paid-for newspaper launches, while free dailies are encouraging hoards
of young Europeans to take up newspaper readership. In Scandinavia,
newspaper companies enjoy a fifth of their profits from internet and
mobile activities. In the US, joint industry initiatives such as
CareerBuilder and Classified Ventures are recovering share from eBay
and Monster.

While British paid-for dailies currently show the
worst circulation declines in Western Europe, British newspaper
executives are among the worst attendees of international industry
events.

Blogging and citizen journalism herald an exploitable,
marketable revolution in community interaction, where newspapers can
profit from the participation of 500 panelists, 5,000 readers or 50,000
citizens, across a multitude of channels. The role of the professional
editor will be more important than ever, if readers are to navigate the
fog of blog, without succumbing to the allure of Google.

Beyond
the newsroom, every newspaper needs a director responsible for
realising 5 per cent annualised top-line growth while the accountants
salivate over another 1 per cent nudge on the bottom line.

The
three key protagonists of our industry – journalists, advertising
people and investors – must find ways to adopt best international
practice.

Our industry needs unity of execution. There is one
Press Association; there needs to be a united industry antidote to
Google and Yahoo. There must be a commitment to single, separate
industry brands for each classified vertical. One national advertising
sales house should represent all regional newspapers.

As Darwin
said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the
most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Good
newspapers realise this. So too do investors.

PETER SANDS,
director of the Editorial Centre, the training division of the Press
Association, and former editor of the Northern Echo: It is difficult
when P45s are flying, but the current turmoil needs to be put into
context.

In the early 1990s, sits vac had almost disappeared and
some newspaper houses were barely reporting 3 per cent profit to
turnover.

Advertisers and readers were migrating to new titles, made possible by advances in desktop publishing.

Sales
of daily titles were slipping badly, and restructuring (remember pods
and clusters?) was followed by wholesale newsroom redundancies.

By
1996 the two biggest players, Thomson Regional Newspapers and
Westminster Press, had cashed in their chips and gone. The companies
that took over were tighter ships and more profit-driven.

Fast
forward to 2006, and here we are again. DMGT knows it is a sensible
time to bow out. Who would bet against others following? The high
returns, profits gleaned almost exclusively from local businesses,
cannot be sustained forever, using the current model.

The number
of suitors for Northcliffe though, suggests that there is still life,
and substantial profits, in the Posts, Mercurys and Telegraphs.

In
the next phase, the regional landscape will probably be made up of
smaller groups (some bought out by current managements) who will
develop their business with local knowledge, pride and more modest
profit targets. They will be lean and innovative. There will be no room
for journalists who merely “fill” the newspaper. The journalists who
thrive will be driven individuals who can find compelling content and
have the skills to deliver it via print, video, podcasts, the web and
SMS messaging. They will work, often from home, for groups whose
business will run on the back of interactive, useful and visual content
delivered in any form, and at any time, the customer wants it.

The key lesson for journalists, as it was in the ’80s and ’90s, is to simply gain the skills needed for the next stage. Quickly.

BOB SATCHWELL,
executive director of the Society of Editors, was editor of the
Cambridge Evening News for nearly 15 years: The end may be in sight for
some regional dailies, but they have being saying that for 20 years or
more.

Local weeklies have shown the way by being relevant and
modern, providing a service in terms of information, both in editorial
and advertising, and enjoyment that cannot be found elsewhere.

While
editorial departments must share responsibility for commercial
performance, the surest way to set off into the downward spiral of that
vicious circle is to compromise on editorial quality and credibility.

Who wants to buy a car without wheels?

NEIL BENSON,
Trinity Mirror editorial director, regionals: Reports that the regional
press is in its death throes are just plain daft. The cutbacks that
have taken place across the industry in recent months are a sensible
response to a major change in trading conditions, and are no different
to the action taken by publishers in previous downturns.

We still
have massively greater resources on the local turf than any other
medium. That’s what underpins our special relationship with readers and
it is also a great springboard into digital media, where we can provide
a depth and relevance of content that others can only dream of.

There’s
no doubt the media landscape will continue to fragment, and all
branches of traditional media can expect their market share to be
attacked.

The regional press isn’t immune from this, but is doing better than most other media.

For us, the trick is to use our unique advantages as we evolve into genuine multimedia publishers.

Trinity
Mirror is already on this road. When you aggregate our print and
digital readership, you see that our overall audience is growing. If
publishers and journalists embrace this opportunity, the future will be
very bright.

MICHAEL CROZIER,
editorial director of Crozier Associates Ltd, the newspaper design and
editorial consultant: Regional newspaper groups rushed to embrace the
internet too early, lost a fortune and a huge section of their readers.

They
confused the advertising market at the same time and altered the
traditional economic structure by deciding the only way to make profits
was by cost-cutting.

The way forward is to take the long-term view.

Shareholders
have to be catered for, but to share out profits of 30 per cent without
massive re-investment in the business is economic suicide. The key must
lie in advertising revenue linked to growing market share in the wider
context, i.e. share of the broader advertising market – internet, local
television and radio, national newspapers.

In the United States,
advertising rates as a percentage of revenue have traditionally been
higher than in Britain. American advertisers have realised the power of
the regional press and continued to support it. As a result, newspapers
have been more profitable, owners have been more benevolent and have
employed more journalists, providing a better product.

If
regional newspapers cut down on editorial, deny the importance of good
photography and employ graduates as advertising salespeople on
ridiculously low rates, how can they expect to compete at point of sale
with the bigger, better funded, better designed national press? The
lack of local news in local newspapers has only contributed to the
success of community-based news and information internet sites.

Regional
newspapers can survive through becoming more regional with localised
editions, campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of regional
and local advertising and by carrying more local – and less national –
news. The increasing concentration of ownership among four major groups
has inevitably led to more centralised business policy. It’s time to
put the clock back and let more strategic decisions about profit
re-investment be made at a local level.

ALAN GEERE,
director, Journalism Training Centre: Page-lead headline in my local
evening paper last week: “Operations delay to pay back debt”. The story
reveals that 2,000 patients won’t be getting the hospital operation
they’ve been waiting for.

Number of people quoted in the story:
two – the Primary Care Trust chairman and the director of planning.
Pictures with story: action picture of chief executive plus picture of
Trust members around table. Number of patients and hospital staff (aka
readers) quoted in story: none.

Number of pictures of patients
and hospital staff (aka readers) with story: none. Opportunities on
page for readers to contribute: none.

Here, in all its living
glory, is the problem with regional newspapers. Old fashioned, one
dimensional, institutional reporting with a cavalier disregard for
readers, who don’t seem to matter. No wonder they’re not buying papers
any more.

The regional press needs to wake up quickly and
reinvent itself before the only readers left are those officials, PR
people and pressure groups who make up the news conspiracy along with
bored reporters and unimaginative editors.

It’s time to reward
editors who work hard to enthuse their staff to engage with readers.
Back them when they want to introduce innovative programmes of
community journalism that get the journalists out of the office and
into the field. In fact, just get rid of the office.

I have
spoken to most of the major regional groups about this over the past
few years and precious few editors – and especially managements – have
the stomach for the fight.

Witness the communal wailing and
gnashing over “citizen journalism” citing legal and copyright issues
plus the perennial protection of “the jobs of professionals in the
industry”.

If this predictable po-faced attitude is supposed to
put the frighteners on people who want to be part of the paper rather
than be lectured at, then there’s bad news from markets around the
world.

The South Korean site Ohmynews (english.ohmynews.com) has
nearly 40,000 citizen reporters on its books, who submit content on
just about everything with little or no interference from the so-called
professional journalists back in the office. Along with this huge
workforce of eyes and ears come potential customers too. Last year it
turned in a profit of $400,000, two thirds of it from advertising.

And,
like the threat of the internet on classified advertising, the whole
issue of citizen journalism could soon start to exercise the major
media players.

The parallels are clear. Just as Trinity Mirror
and DMGT have spent millions buying up internet advertising sites, soon
they may look towards consolidating content that appears on the web.

So,
to quote David Brent, let’s get ‘customer focused’ and put the reader
first. That needs a change in attitude at the top, which leads to a
revolution in what regional journalists do and how they do it.

STEVE DYSON,
editor, the Birmingham Mail: Involve readers in every page published;
reflect their lives; ask for their input, their pictures, what they
want to see as content. Stop ignoring readers’

pleas for content.

No more “we don’t cover birthdays/wedding anniversaries, etc.”.

Unless the suggestion is racist, sexist, indecent or illegal, we should have the courtesy to reflect what readers want to see.

If
regional papers spent more time publishing what people loved to read,
see and talk about, we’d have more chance of securing our futures.

In
general, regional circulations are not in terminal decline. But they
will only revive, or the decline will only flatten out or slow down, if
we modernise and become at the centre of readers’

lives again.

Give every reporter a geographical patch and a quota of stories to create from nothing every day.

Give bottles of decent wine to the top performers.

Is there an alternative to cutting back on journalists and editorial spending?

Yes.
Increase or at least replace vacancies that are working for your
newspaper, i.e. if you’ve got old farts and cardigans in the corner who
no longer play the part, let ’em go (to put it politely).

But if
you’ve got reporters who give you results, who work their balls off and
don’t go home until the paper’s full to brimming with real-life
stories, then fight like hell to keep ’em.

Regarding editorial spending, fight for what works.

If
you’ve freelances or contracts that are just there because they’ve
always been there (gardening, crosswords, bridge etc.) then challenge
their worth.

Can it be done better and cheaper? Yes – cut back.

No – fight to keep it.

Stand up for yourselves. Believe in your title.

Owners,
plcs and MDs are paid to look at P&Ls and to get best value. But
the good bosses respect editors (and unions, for that matter) who fight
for the best… not just fight for the status quo.

Lead from the front, make sure your paper is seen, heard and talked about every day, that it’s in the centre of any controversy.

Live the job. Enjoy it. Milk it.

Should
there be a different business model? Should there be more independents
or is that just unrealistic in the current climate?

Some
journalists talk about how great it was to work for old family firms,
how committed they were to local journalism, community groups, etc.

But
are these memories not a little clouded by rose-tinted spectacles? Who
can say that they were happy with their pay under old, family owners?

While
such owners may have been local and popular in memory, how many were
actually just fairly fat (wallets and girth), pin-stripe suited
businessmen who had long lunches and condescending walks along the
editorial floor with fat cigars and chauffeurs waiting to take them
home?

And how many pages did their newspapers have?

Look in
the archives and you’ll see it was in the 20s and 30s pagination-wise
in the 1960s and ’70s, and certainly no thicker than now in the 1980s.

These
family firms made smaller profit margins, but in many cases ate, drank
and lived on that profit, as part of the P&L. Remember the
boardroom lunches? Every day? Boardroom chefs, waiters, drinks
cabinets, plush seats at football grounds and the rest?

For sure, not everything is wonderful about the modern plc culture, about the needs of the market, shareholders and the like.

But
it weren’t that great 10, 20 and 30 years ago either. In fact, it was
pretty lazy, conceited and unfocused ownerships from the past that got
us into the unprepared mess we’re in now.

We’re facing digital
TV, mobile news, internet and free Metro and Lite newspapers as a fresh
challenge – and only now because the plcs are insisting that we get
future strategies sorted out.

If this had been left to older, family-run independents, the majority – not all I’m sure – would have collapsed years ago.

The
business structure ain’t necessarily great, but I reckon it’s a damn
sight better than it would have been if local magnates still owned us
all.

Which of them would have been able to purchase £60 million, state-of-the-art presses?

The
current climate is a massive challenge. And the only way to face and
win a massive challenge is to work bloody hard. And if that means
standing up and being counted in your own company, fighting to keep
what’s working and to develop what can work in the future, then that’s
what the best of the regional hacks should be doing.

PETER COLE,
professor of journalism, University of Sheffield; media columnist,
Independent on Sunday: The USP of the regional and local press is that
it is regional and local, hence the success of the locals compared with
the regionals. But of course weeklies are smaller – smaller
circulations, smaller profits, smaller ad revenues.

But Ray
Tindle, owner of Tindle newspapers has proved small can be very
profitable. In a world of mobile, rootless citizens, the desire for a
sense of community grows. The local paper can create and reinforce that
sense of community, by championing, campaigning, celebrating and
changing for the better.

That requires good journalism –
supported by good management and marketing – good reporters who
understand the issues, have good contacts, expose the inadequacies of
local government, and the impact locally of national decisions.

Instead,
trainees are employed for rubbish money, editorial staffs are shrunk,
budgets depend on the cheap trainees moving on, and there is no time to
dig.

The root cause of all of this is cost-cutting by the mega
conglomerates, who seek profit margins of 30 per cent or more on
turnover in order to drive up share price and satisfy the City.

There is efficiency – desirable; and there is greed – ultimately suicidal.

The
product, the newspaper, is the result of journalism, and it has to be
good, and relevant to the community it serves. It often isn’t. If
reporters don’t get out of the office they are not part of the
community; they do not know it, nor understand it, nor get it right.

The
readers find out. They trust the local paper, in a way that they trust
neither national nor local politicians, and this is a priceless asset
for the regional and local press. It must be maintained.

The
regionals need to do more work on their websites and follow the
national lead, linking them with the print product. Rather than
worrying about classified departing, they need to do more to hold on to
it, mainly through their websites.

Rather than thinking technological developments are not for them, regionals should embrace blogs and podcasts.

Rather
than moaning about developments in local television, they should work
with it, realising that they know more about local news gathering than
television does. Basically, they have to invest in the product, or
there will be no product.

Are regional circulations, in general,
in terminal decline? If they are – and regional evenings and mornings
could well be – it is very slow, and profitable, decline.

Although
some publishers have chosen to get out of newspapers, there have always
been others keen to get in, and pay large sums to do so.

Venture
capital does not interest itself in hopeless projects; but venture
capital is always around when big acquisitions become available.

So is Johnston Press. These people know the difference between a good business and one in terminal decline.

If companies continue to cut back on editorial spending, things will just continue to get worse.

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