Five minutes to midnight: End in sight for regional papers?

The sign says it all

As the stripped down Post prepares to shed more than a third of its staff this week in the latest round of redundancies, is the death knell sounding for regional daily newspapers?

Chris Oakley, former editor of the Liverpool Echo and owner of the Birmingham Post and Mail and then the Yorkshire Post, certainly thinks so – at least in their current form.

In a speech to the Society of Editors’ regional conference in Manchester on 10 May 2012, entitled ‘Five Minutes to Midnight: The death and possible re-birth of the regional newspaper industry’, which is printed in Holdthefrontpage.co.uk, he delivered a devastating critique of the regional press, which he says needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

His analysis makes for disturbing reading, given what’s going on in the industry generally and what we’ve seen at the Bristol Evening Post.

Johnston’s debt repayments = 1,000 journalists’ jobs

He lambasted the big regional publishers for racking up debts on acquisitions – which has led to massive cost cutting in recent years – saying the cost of Johnston Press’s current debt repayments was equivalent to that of employing 1,000 journalists.

He ridiculed JP chief executive Ashley Highfield’s objective of doubling the company’s 17pc profit margin by 2020 as “unachievable”.

This is what he said about Northcliffe:

“Northcliffe is in a stronger position than the other three major major groups but has shed almost a quarter of its 3,000 workforce since 2010 and announced a further 13% cut in regional editorial costs this year.

“For decades, the regionals kept the Daily Mail afloat but some years ago the company decided to exit regional publishing…and then turned down an offer of more than £1 billion for its titles. It’s an offer that will never be repeated…and the company has been chipping away at the regionals’ foundations ever since.”

Greed and stupidity

Through greed and stupidity (my words, not Chris’s), our publishers failed to capitalise on the boom years when newspaper profit margins were 25% or more and instead opted for short-term profit at the expense of long-term gain. So they racked up millions in debt, making acquisitions, instead of investing in strategies to address the internet’s opportunities and dangers.

“As a result, costs continue to be cut in ways which have rendered the regional dailies less readable and less relevant. You know better than me how editorial workloads have been increased while staff has been reduced; how page designs are templated in a one-size fits all approach.”

One strategy is to become a weekly – could this be the next major change at The Post? – but in Chris’s view, this is unlikely to offer more than a temporary reprieve.

Not dead yet

But it’s not all black, as Chris pointed out. Recent major research by Deloittes reported that:

  • 40% of people read a local newspaper at least once a week.
  • Newspaper advertising has more impact than online advertising with 62% saying they paid more attention to newspaper advertisements.
  • Discount coupons cut out of newspapers is also more popular than online social couponing.

Chris said:

“So, there is a market which reads and trusts newspapers, which can be profitably served although probably only weekly…

“But those people, those potential readers, expect to see faces they know in the pages of their local paper, to read names they recognise, to be alerted to decisions and events that might impact their day-to-day life or budget, to read stories that involve or affect them, about their family, their friends, their neighbours, their team, their club, their street, their town or village.

“That requires feet on the ground, journalists visible, accessible and part of the communities they serve.”

I recommend you read Chris Oakley’s speech. It’s thought-provoking, depressing but offers some nuggets of hope, albeit not for the big regional dailies like The Post. Read it on Holdthefrontpage.co.uk by clicking here.

So what’s the future?

Chris Oakley wouldn’t buy a big city regional daily “not even for £1 debt free…unless I was an asset stripper, looking to cream off the last few years’ profit before a title’s collapse”.

Instead, if he were a young journalist today, he would start his own weekly newspaper “in one of those areas which the big groups nominally call theirs but from which they have to all intents and purposes retreated.”

Interestingly, that’s exactly what former Bristol Evening Post assistant editor Richard Coulter has done by launching filtonvoice. He believes the future of print is hyperlocal. Read a report of Richard’s address to the Society of Editors here.

 

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  1. Simon Chapman says:

    Interesting follow up article with comments on whether overnight printing has contributed to the decline in local papers. Most of the commentators think it has, and one cites the Wolverhampton Express and Star a live evening paper publishing on the same day, selling over 100,000 copies a day, 6 days a week!

    http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2012/news/overnight-printing-wont-kill-newspapers-says-higgerson/

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