Banks: Young bucks could learn from the PIGs

SO that was the Charge of the Lites Brigade, was it? Mighty newspaper armies riding into the Valley of Death for a showdown between the new world and the old (or the "pre-internet generation", according to Stefano Hatfield, commander of Rupert's pretentiously lower-case mouthful thelondonpaper).

Reminiscent as it was of the last cavalry charge, when men on horseback rode out against the tanks and weaponry of a new age, I cannot make sense of the desperate strategy that is being employed to prevent, apparently, not only the Evening Standard but the entire popular press from heading straight down the gurgler.

It goes like this: the Standard, sole survivor in a city which in my working lifetime boasted two evening papers selling between them two million copies is now barely clinging to little better than 300,000 daily purchasers. So its owners, Associated, flood the capital with not one but two free newspapers, Metro and London Lite. Not wishing to miss a trick, News International's cavernous coffers are called in to finance a third free rival to the poor old Standard, which already faces a challenge in the City from a fourth freebie, City AM.

Thus, the solution to falling circulations and plunging ad revenues would appear to be to flood the most reluctant evening newspaper readership in Christendom with FIVE TIMES the number of copies they currently read. Then, to give Standard editor Veronica Wadley about as much chance as a one-armed paper hanger, Associated increases her title's price from 40p to 50p.

Who'd have thought it would come to this? For years newspapermen laughed at the thought of an age when the daily printed word would cease to hold all in its thrall.

In 1995, relieved of the editor's chair at the Mirror and booted upstairs to the editorial director's office, I cast around for a way in which I could make a meaningful contribution. I introduced my fellow directors to what was still simplistically called the "information superhighway" The discussion that followed demonstrated that most of my colleagues could not accept the existence of a serious threat, not just to revenue and circulation but to the print industry's very existence.

Now, I am no doomsayer and it certainly gives me no pleasure to say "I told you so". Indeed, far from our industry facing the immediate prospect of being overwhelmed by the Lite brigade, I would ask: Aren't we fighting the apocalyptic last battle a little too early?

Stefano Hatfield might well sneer at the ante-deluvian notion of "editions", but what worked in the past for us PIGs (pre-internet generation) might well, with a wash-andbrush- up, work just as well today.

I commence with a couple of offerings and a question or three from the Museum of Newspapers Past. Laugh if you like, they all worked once…

"Whatever happened to the ‘stop press'?" or "Why doesn't news work any more?"

Known also as the "latest" or the "fudge box", the "stop press" was a column of white space on the front or back page which gradually filled with cryptic headlines and copy as late stories broke.

It enabled pressmen to replate a small portion of one page on the press while the lengthier operation of a full change was still under discussion on the back bench. It also meant that newspapers already dispatched to branch offices or wholesalers for distribution could be updated using a "bushing" machine. This was a heavy-duty Xerox which would be fitted with a duplicator skein onto which a reporter would type brief head and copy which would then be "stencilled"into each newspaper.

When the Hull Daily Mail sent its last "stop press" machine to a print museum a couple of years back a member of the sales staff recalled seeing "queues of people outside our branch office door waiting for the latest… we sometimes sold 50 or 60 copies like that".

"Whatever became of Lobby Lud?" or "Has anyone got any smart stunts?"

Memories of Lobby Lud, born in 1927, still bring a lump to the throats of elderly circulation managers. Taking his name from the Telex address (Lobby, Ludgate) of his birthplace, the Westminster Gazette, Lobby was played by a circulation rep who would stand at a given place during hours specified in the newspaper's columns and await challenges from members of the public. Bearing a copy of the paper the lucky winner would say: "You are Lobby Lud and I claim the £5 prize!"

It wasn't bingo but it caught on: both the Mirror (with Chalkie White) and the Daily Mail plagiarised successfully.

So did Graham Greene and Agatha Christie, who each employed Lobby Lud characters in their novels.

"Whatever happened to plagiarism?" or "If you spot a hot trend, copy it!"

Spain, a nation whose newspaper-reading public has never reached the heights of UK consumers, is experiencing, alone in Europe, significant growth in its newspaper buying habits.

Disappointingly for A Place In the Sun and all those other wannabe-migrant TV shows, a recent report in El Pais attributes the strengthening of paid newspaper readership not to the reading habits of British ex-pats but to a boom in offers and promotions, up almost 20 per cent year-on-year.

While circulations — paid-for AND freebies — in most other European countries are falling, Spain has managed to increase its paid circulation, even in a market inundated with free papers, and increase newspaper revenues by 40 per cent.

I've heard it argued that a diet of news, non-fiction and opinion laced with tempting and valuable reader offers and promotions is the equivalent of paying readers to take the product and, thus, keep the advertiser happy and the revenue rolling in.

Almost as daft as GIVING copies away, isn't it?

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