Local press: adrift without a compass and in danger of disappearing

I met the editor of one of Britain’s oldest regional dailies at a social event recently.  We chatted about the worrying state of the media and with a resigned sigh he said:  “I am hoping that the paper will see me out”.  He is in his mid-50s and the title he edits has been published since the early days of Victoria’s reign.

It was not a carefully considered opinion, nor an official announcement – but I suspect that it tells you something of how adrift the management of Britain’s regional press has become.  Few seem to see any real future for their titles beyond getting out with their own nest suitably feathered.  Indeed, as I write dark rumours are abroad that one of the regional press ‘big three’ (Trinity Mirror, Johnson Press and Newsquest/Garnett) is about to announce the complete closure of some of its best known, and biggest selling daily titles.

Of course the nation’s attention is currently concentrated on the national media – although if you ask most MPs they will tell you that they are more concerned about the demise of their local papers than with the misdeeds of some of the nationals.   But in a few dark corners, some thought is being given to whether anything can save local media from their seemingly inevitable slide.

Neil Fowler, for example, the Guardian research fellow at Nuffield College, came up with a 10 point plan to save local newspapers – Jon Slattery republished it here.  It is not altogether without merit – although the idea of a debt write-off is a bit rich for companies that have treated their employees abominably while extracting returns on capital of as much at 30%.

More worrying, though, nothing that Fowler suggests would cure regional newspapers of the mixture of arrogance and flat footedness that they have made their trademark in recent years.  The most perfect example of this is in the success of thebusinesspages.com.  Johnston Press can’t really be blamed for allowing the The Yorkshire Post’s business editor to waltz out of the door and snatch a decent chunk of their market from under their noses – after all, it was a new and original idea that he had.

What is astonishing is that the publishers of the Manchester Evening News and the Birmingham Post sat back and let him do the same again, after his already well-publicised success in Leeds.

The ‘Confidential’ group of websites is another example of the kind of venture that newspapers themselves could be spearheading.   Regional newspapers used to have their commercial departments strangle at birth, any who had the audacity to try publishing under their noses.  Today they appear to adopt the attitude of a pensioner watching the local children steal all the apples from their garden with a shrug that says – ‘oh well, at least they are being eaten’.

There have been local news triumphs.  During the recent riots, Wolverhampton’s Express and Star saw daily visits to it website swell to 835,000 – which is pretty good for a town whose population is 240,000.  Archant’s Ipswich newspapers reporting of the Steve Wright/Ipswich murders trail saw teams of reporters covering the court case in short shifts so that the website could be updated hourly as the case proceeded.  But heartening as these examples are, they are both responses to a news challenge, rather than innovation in the business of journalism.

Declining sales and a tight advertising market make this a desperately difficult market in which to innovate.   But unless local papers do start thinking anew, they are on a certain course for catastrophe.  In 2009, Enders Analysis predicted that half of all local newspapers would shut within five years.  Sadly, not much has happened in the intervening period to contradict this view.  What a shame that in all the earnest attention that is being focused on the media as a result of the Leveson inquiry, almost none will consider local newspapers.