The survival of UK regional dailies and their digital growth is the great escape story of the media downturn

When Guardian Media Group sold its regional newspaper titles for just over £7m in 2010 it clearly did not believe they had much of a future.

The Manchester Evening News had been in the same stable as The Guardian for 130 years, propping the national title up for much of that time with its profits.

It was sold at a fire-sale price along  with more than 30 other regional titles as GMG circled its wagons around ensuring it could underwrite the losses of The Guardian “in perpetuity” by cashing out of all its other businesses.

Guardian Media Group was not ready to even contemplate its regional titles delivering anything other than handsome profits so it cut them adrift after the classified advertising market crashed in 2008.

Since then there has been a difficult readjustment for the MEN. Jobs have been cut. The smart town centre offices have gone, to be replaced with a grim industrial estate in Oldham. The daily and weekly titles are now produced out of one centralised newsroom.

But you can’t keep a good news brand down. And MEN journalists deserve credit (along with many other regional newspaper colleagues) for the way they have rallied and made their title a success.

This may sound odd in the light of ABC figures which yesterday revealed regional daily newspapers sales down by an average of more than 10 per cent year on year.

But if you look at the background, it is astonishing that regional dailies have kept their print sales declines that low.

Print sales have been in long-term decline anyway for at least 30 years. Add to that the accelerating pace of changing media consumption in the last decade caused by first broadband and then mobile.

Bare in mind that newspapers are much smaller now than they were pre 2008 (because of the loss of the all those classified advertising pages, which were in themselves a draw for readers).

Then factor in the fact that newsrooms have shrunk in size by about a third since 2008 and the fact that most regional dailies now offer all their news for free, and first, online.

Broadly speaking, local daily newspaper buyers are today (compared with early 2008) being asked to pay at least 50 per cent more for a product which is perhaps 50 per cent smaller and which is of a lower quality because it is produced by fewer journalists whose main focus is now creating a website.

That these newspapers still exist at all is a tribute to the amazing effort which goes into producing them by journalists who have somehow managed to keep them credible whilst working on the digital transition.

The Manchester Evening News deserves particular praise for creating a local news website which has a footprint that many national and international sites would envy. It is no doubt helped by its proximity to two famous football teams, but it is impressive nonetheless.

Greater Manchester has around a third the population of London and the MEN  has a smaller editorial team than the London Evening Standard.

Yet its website has managed to beat the Standard. The MEN attracts more than 700,000 unique browsers per day versus the Standard’s 534,000.

Across the board regional newspaper websites are growing by more than 30 per cent year on year. This has been achieved despite the fact that across the industry offices continue to close, titles are still being consolidated under one editor and journalists are being made redundant.

In 2009 analyst Claire Enders predicted that the collapse in advertising revenue would claim half of Britain’s regional newspaper titles over the following five years.

She underestimated both the ruthlessness with which owners would cut costs and the determination and resilience of journalists themselves.

Looking at the 86 regional dailies audited by ABC in 2009 – not all are still dailies, but they are all still with us as print titles.

Their survival (albeit in some cases a shadow of their former selves) has been the great escape of the post-2008 media downturn. 

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