Steve Auckland: 'The future looks bright for print'

Northcliffe Media managing director Steve Auckland has told staff why he believes the company has a ‘brighter future’– and that print will still be the ‘main port of call’for most readers.

In a memo to staff seen by Press Gazette, Auckland admitted it had been a ‘very challenging year’for the company with ‘lots of departures, some arrivals, and an enormous amount of change in how we run the business”.

Auckland arrived at the company in March 2011 and a year later, the company returned to profit growth for the first time since the recession.

He said there were a few other ‘tangible signs’of growth, with local display advertising starting to level out in many regional centres.

At the beginning of May, Northcliffe signed a deal with Trinity Mirror which saw thirteen of their city dailies sign up for a new sales package called ‘The National’.

Auckland said the partnership was ‘already bearing fruit’and that he believes it will ‘truly transform the industry”, bringing new advertisers to local titles.

Last week Press Gazette revealed how Auckland had told staff that he could not rule out the business being sold by parent company Daily Mail and General Trust, stoking speculation over the future of Northcliffe.

But while Auckland thinks there will be further consolidation in the industry, he insisted no merger discussions were taking place with Trinity following the abrupt exit of its chief executive Sly Bailey.

And he believes that ‘local and community spirit will grow even quicker in the next few years as the economy climbs out of recession”, adding: ‘We’ve so much going for us when you look at the wider economic trends. It’s vital we grasp the opportunity – a rise in the ‘grey’ market, resurgence of Britishness and renewed spirit in communities.

‘At a ‘Futures’ meeting we ran over 18 months ago, the ‘trend predictor’ pointed out that, with rising fuel costs, local will become even more important.

‘Warren Buffet has recognised this hence his purchase of a large local newspaper business in the United States.'(see page 18 for more details).

In May, the Nrotchliffe’s latest financial results revealed a 34 per cent increase in operating profit from £8m to £11m, despite revenue falling 10 per cent to £107m.

Over the past year, Northcliffe has cut staff numbers from 2,530 at the beginning of October 2011 to 2,366 – a reduction of six per cent.

During that time, it converted four of its daily titles, including the Exeter Express & Echo and the Torquay Herald Express, into weeklies, leading to a 13 per cent reduction in publishing costs.

Auckland said the maximum size of its newspaper sites were now around 100/120 people, which was ‘seen by business leaders as the optimum size for efficiency, communication, ownership and links in the community”.

He added: ‘Small is beautiful. We can be nimble, change direction quickly and work with a degree of autonomy. They’re like owner- operated companies.”

He could not rule out further job losses being made at the company – or more dailies going weekly.

His intention now is for Northcliffe’s worst performing newspapers to reach a maximum 5 per cent rate print sales decline by the fourth quarter of the financial year.

‘This is a major challenge for some sites but needs to be achieved if we are to have a sustainable business,’he said.

Auckland’s memo also reveals there was an internal debate over whether to drop the company’s ‘Thisis’ websites and revert back to individual websites for each title.

While there were no plans to drop the ‘Thisis’ brands, he admitted that the question had been ‘extensively debated”, adding: ‘We will be working more closely to… make sure our links and newspaper branding is as clear as possible both online and in print.”

Editors who are dealing with ever-diminishing budgets, meanwhile, were told their main challenge was to grow sales with ‘smaller traditional newsrooms… the key will be to focus all editorial resources on the things that make a difference.

‘We expect editors to review everything that is in their titles, to assess its worth and concentrate on the content that readers really want,’said Auckland

‘The editorial quality of our titles is crucial… we want the emphasis to be on quality and originality and not on filling the columns with easily accessed material of little interest.’

Unlike his counterpart at Johnston Press, Ashley Highfield, Auckland stopped short of espousing a ‘digital first’strategy, and acknowledged the continuing importance of print.

‘I’m not one for speeches on the future in 20 years’ time. Technology is changing, but I believe print will be around for a long time to come.’

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