With Borrell gone, can Brum ever be cracked?

Despite a few highlights, the latest ABCs are sobering for all in the industry

The latest ABC figures for the regional press make fairly sobering reading for anyone associated with the industry.

There are a few highlights, but many papers are struggling with
fairly systematic decline – at least in straightforward newspaper copy
sales.

The factors which keep people upbeat in the business is
that the industry continues to excel at launching new products,
extending brands, growing readership through the internet etc and
generally still making huge profits.

While advertising agencies
may try to use the figures in tough negotiations on ad rate in the next
few months, they know that regional newspapers still offer great
response to their clients – which is what matters.

But for most
journalists it is an undoubtedly demoralising experience to see your
title associated with fairly chunky minus figures.

Even the
weeklies, which have been the big success story in recent years, have
felt the pinch this time round – but the deficits are relatively modest.

The
relatively stable mornings all show a minus with the exception of the
recently re-launched Liverpool Daily Post and its sister title in North
Wales.

Unfortunately it is the biggest daily sector (evening titles) which has suffered the most again.

It
may seem strange that ambitious and competitive editors – who like to
win at all costs – would probably be happy with a minus figure starting
with a two or three.

Once you go beyond that into the four and
fives, the pressure is on. Anyone with a minus six or seven will be
needing to explain it away using a variety of means – bulk sale
reduction, press problems, edition splitting/merging, difficult urban
area, ethnic mix etc.

There is no doubt that Trinity Mirror’s
Midlands operation has had a torrid time – more of that later – but
interestingly the north east as a region has had a cracking six months.

The
Evening Chronicle in Newcastle is just -0.3 down (with a slightly worse
actively purchased figure this time round), the Teesside Gazette is up
half a per cent with no bulks at all, the similarly bulk-free
Hartlepool Mail is 0.3 per cent up, the Shields Gazette is -2.3 and the
Sunderland Echo is -2.8%.

The region is well on its way to
regenerating, has a strong sense of identity and community and some
good footie success or scandal – which may well have played a part in
the excellent figures.

Other large deficit figures which leap off
the page are Leicester’s -9.4, but the fact that their actively
purchased figure is now 97.6 per cent compared with 96.9 per cent six
months ago and 95.6 per cent a year ago must be taken into
consideration.

The same is true of the Leeds evening paper’s
whopping -15.4 per cent decline. Its actively purchased figure now
stands at a completely respectable 100 per cent. Six months ago this
was 96.7 per cent, and a year ago an embarrassing 90.1 per cent.

Clearly
Johnston Press has decided to go for a quick and bloody end to its bulk
sale dependence in Leeds and will be prepared to take the shortterm hit
in the figures.

The same is true of its title in Sheffield, which explains the larger than desired ABC figure of – 10 per cent.

But
back to Birmingham. The figures do not make comfortable reading for the
largest newspaper group in the country. The Birmingham evening paper is
-10.5, its morning stable mate -23.4, the Sunday Mercury is -12.7 and
the Coventry Evening Telegraph is -12.2.

When MD Alistair Nee lost his job recently, many wondered if he would be the fall guy for the circulation crisis.

Before
and after that event the pressure on Birmingham Evening Mail editor and
regional editor- in-chief Roger Borrell (pictured) must have verged on
being intolerable.

When he was tapped up for the job more than
three years ago, leaving the smaller and more stable Preston paper, he
would have had some realisation of the challenges ahead.

Everyone
who has worked as a newspaper executive in England’s second city will
be able to describe the difficulty in getting to grips with this large
urban sprawl. Where areas such as the north east can clearly benefit
from its strong sense of identity and relatively tight footprint this
does not seem to be the case in Birmingham.

The shame of his
departure, is that Borrell is one of the best news guys in the industry
– being able to combine an excellent news sense with great man
management skills.

Calm under pressure, and with an ability to
sink many pints with the troops without seeming to be in any way
affected, he would be at the top of my fantasy newsroom team every time.

After sleeping and fishing in the next few weeks he may well wish he had left sooner – or not taken the job at all.

But
that would be to ignore the big improvements he made to the paper and
the way he determinedly tackled the issues of the ethnic minority-free
zone he found in both the newsroom and the title when he first arrived.

So what next for Birmingham?

Liverpool Echo editor Mark Dickinson is to move south to take up the role of editorial director.

Dickinson,
who has had the talents to become an MD for some time, will presumably
concentrate on strategy – leaving a new editor of the Mail to
concentrate solely on the paper, which is no bad thing.

An
unnamed source said in Press Gazette last week that “most people have
reached the conclusion that it’s another cost-cutting exercise” but
that does not ring true.

It seems to me that Trinity Mirror is
rightly concerned about circulation performance in the Midlands and is
looking for new ways to put it right.

Adding another senior editorial figure into the team will end up costing them more.

And
losing Dickinson from Liverpool is slightly risky timing with the
editor of the Daily Post and the MD both about to go off on maternity
leave shortly. But presumably that’s a risk worth taking. Someone has
to crack Birmingham, and sooner rather than later.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

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