Northcliffe’s decision to take the Torquay Herald Express from daily to weekly has little to do with the decline of newspapers but instead marks a new, alarming phase in the now three-year-old economic downturn.
It must be particularly galling for editor Andy Phelan and his team of journalists – who had done their job admirably. Theirs was one of the better-performing daily newspapers in the country circulation-wise – selling 21,112 copies a day, down a relatively respectable 3.7 per cent year on year.
The daily Herald Express is not closing because of any journalistic failing, or because of the digital revolution. It is going weekly because there were no longer the ads to fill it over six days a week. And because the recession is deeper and darker in places like Torquay in the South West of England than the London-based media may realise.
It always amazes me how ruthlessly unsentimental national owners are when it comes to regional newspapers. Guardian Media Group sold the Manchester Evening News at a fire-sale price in February 2010 because it slipped into the red for six months in 2009 after more than a century of profitability. The Herald Express had similarly made a good profit for its owners throughout most of its 85 years. It could do again. But it seems proprietor Lord Rothermere is in no mood to wait around any longer to find out.
The last time a UK evening newspaper went weekly was the Bath Chronicle in 2007 (also owned by Northcliffe). With daily sales of just over 12,000 this was less surprising. Morning title the Birmingham Post went weekly in 2009 ( it was selling less than 10,000 a day).
But if the Herald Express can find itself in the same position (with the loss of 15 out of 30 journalists) then it seems that anything is now possible.
There are more than 30 daily newspapers around the UK which sell less than the Herald Express. But it seems that an area’s economic performance, rather than a newspaper’s sales performance, is the deciding factor . Afterall, regional newspapers have always made far more money from advertising than they do from copy sales.
In May this year, Northcliffe parent company Daily Mail and General Trust reported operating profit of £144m on revenue of £991m for the first half of the year. Couldn’t Lord Rothermere have afforded to give the Herald Express a little more breathing space?