Local newspapers defy recession, conference reveals

NMJ was so overwhelmed by the wealth of information and experience coming out of the Local Heroes Conference on May 14th that it is covering the event with two posts: one on its ‘inspirations’ and a second on ‘questions’.

The conference, run by the Press Gazette and Kingston University, brought together founders and editors of local news outlets up and down the country, from hyper-local community websites to independent weekly papers. A tale of two recession-defying local newspaper launches was particularly inspiring.

Nigel Lowther, editor and co-owner of Cleethorpes Chronicle, described how he had launched a new weekly newspaper in the teeth of the recession.

The first challenge was keeping the launch of the planned title hidden from Northcliffe, publishers of arch rival Grimsby Telegraph, while recruiting staff and setting up an office in the centre of town. Then came autumn 2008 and the Credit Crunch. ‘We had to look at business plans that were written only six months earlier, and that’s what we did,’ he said.

Now in its third year, the paper is heading for a decent profit margin. Keeping content local is key, said Lowther, the paper always leads on Cleethorpes, no matter how good the story in nearby Grimsby.

Rising profit expectations by big media companies over the past decade helped to create the gap in the market for an independent title,’ he added: ‘Hey, we’ll be happy with five per cent, thanks very much, this year.’

Meanwhile on Merseyside, Champion Media was using the recession as an opportunity for expansion.

Managing director Betty Drummond described how the first title, the Southport Champion, was put together in four days, with the editor working on a laptop from his basement, a sales team making calls from a hotel room and two paste-up tables bought at B&Q.

‘That was the Champion spirit,’ she said. ‘We were not going to be defeated.’ Local media giants United Newspapers and Trinity did ‘everything they could’ to stop the new company getting off the ground, she added.

The company has since launched two more titles and has advertising revenues up 11 per cent, year on year.

Like Lowther, Drummond felt unrealistic profit expectations could be a bar to keeping local journalism healthy. ‘I feel sometimes people are focusing too much on the bottom line rather than concentrating on delivering the goods that newspapers are supposed to deliver.’

Earlier, a rousing, Churchillian speech from veteran local newspaper proprietor Sir Ray Tindle confirmed suspicions that the new age of the hyper-local may be drawing lessons from traditional journalism.

‘The local weekly press is rock solid, with revenues rising again, and looking forward to doing another 200 years,’ he declared.

‘I’ve been hearing all this nonsense about the state we’re in for the past 63 years,’ he added, pointing out that Tindle Newspapers had rode this – as previous recessions – without losing a single journalist or title.

Sir Ray bought his first bought his first title in 1945 with a £250 soldier’s ‘demob’ payment, and now heads a company that publishes two hundred titles and has a turnover of over £50 million. The keys to success, were keeping the coverage very, very local he said: ‘a cat must not have kittens’ without it being covered in the local paper.

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