Industry performs best under threat

by Alison Hastings

THE NEWSPAPER Society’s work, looking at how best to measure audience and reach, cannot come soon enough.

The latest six-monthly ABC figures look depressing at face value and yet many in the regional press know they are getting their writing and advertising to far more people than suggested.

The industry always performs best when under threat, diversifying into new areas to keep ahead of the game.

Many centres now have morning editions where there were once just traditional evenings, free daily lites where there were once just paid-fors, plus e-editions, podcasts, blogs, TV and radio.

A group such as Archant owns a fantastic stable of lifestyle magazines to complement its traditional papers — and although they can’t possibly be added to the circulation of the paper, they help the bottom line and protect journalists jobs. But until we work out a way of measuring this to the satisfaction of all, all we are left with the familiar ABC yearon- year results.

And there are some success stories even within these measures. With the evenings, The Belfast Telegraph stands out as a metropolitan paper that has increased sales. This has been achieved by producing a morning tabloid version of the evening broadsheet. It’s an expensive way of getting those extra sales — but reassuring in this day and age, as it is on the back of editorial investment and not a CD giveaway.

The Sunderland Echo should also be mentioned in dispatches for only losing 0.3 per cent of sale, confirming the view that having a fantastic or disastrous football season is much better than mid-table mediocrity.

Just down the road, my old paper, the Evening Chronicle, in Newcastle has also had a great performance with -2.1 per cent. The challenge there will be to maintain this after dropping Late Night Final, the football Pink and putting the price up 5p.

On the downside, the gossip about the Birmingham Mail’s post-launch figures being poor was right, it coming in at -11.9 per cent. The Mail will rightly be comforted by the fact that the launch was halfway through the reporting period and they gave a lot of papers away in a sampling exercise.

I suspect it will be posting much better figures next time round (it already has three months to go by) and editor Steve Dyson has put on record that the ones after that will be "tremendous".

Ipswich’s Evening Star figure of -12.4 per cent also leaps off the page, but editor Nigel Pickover is confident of a better 2006 — partly down to a soft relaunch.

Down the road his sister title, the Norwich Evening News, has posted -8.5 per cent, which is moving in the right direction after what could never be described as a soft relaunch. Editor David Bourn says the process they went through was revolution as opposed to evolution, and admits to being initially surprised by the antipathy from their most elderly readers.

He now describes his paper as "more readily able to meet the challenge of the multimedia age, more accurately reflecting the city we live in, and the most contemporary evening newspaper in the country".

In the morning sector, plaudits need to be handed out to the News Letter in Belfast for a 0.7 per cent rise and the Western Mail in Cardiff with -0.7 per cent (and that’s up against the previous year’s switch to compact).

On the downside, the Liverpool Daily Post recorded the worst figure in this sector at -7.2 per cent, but with a much better actual sales figure than its counterpart in Birmingham.

The weeklies have been finding it slightly more difficult in the past couple of years after being such a success story, but a quarter of titles are still putting on sales.

Of the Sundays, the Mercury in Birmingham has had a bit of a torrid time with a -12 per cent figure. Editor David Brookes is right to point out the difficulties the regional Sundays face against the red-top nationals.

And, of course, football results can swing figures fairly dramatically. But interestingly, the same could be true in Newcastle for the Sunday Sun and yet its figure is -5.7 per cent.

It just goes to prove how difficult the Birmingham market place is. Trinity Mirror North East MD Steve Brown, who is Brum-born, is, I’m sure, very happy to be working away from his home patch.

IN THE three years I have been writing this column, I have only leapt to defend a handful of editors, and the two who readily spring to mind are Rachael Campey (above left) and Sarah Sands (right).

In Campey’s case it caused a bit of a stir with the unions in Yorkshire and she left the Post soon after. With Sands, I felt compelled to defend what I saw as selective reporting on her relaunch quotes, which gave the impression she was some sort of fluffy bunny. She has now left too, so clearly I am some sort of kiss of death. I should add that I had only met Campey once at a conference before I wrote the piece, and have never met Sands.

Both women were highly regarded in the industry before they took over the hot seats which eventually burned their backsides. Campey had been a successful evening newspaper editor and Sands was deputy for many years of The Daily Telegraph. I wonder if either of them regrets the moves to the Yorkshire Post and Sunday Telegraph. How ever many people fly to their defence, they will be remembered, at least initially, as having gone very quickly from success to apparent failure.

This is an industry that can wipe out a reputation of years of excellent performance and talent with a P45, large cheque and confidentiality agreement. Of course there will always be a large queue of people waiting in the wings to take centre stage. The benefits of being an editor outweigh, for most, the possible chance of being perceived as cocking it up.

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