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Can we save the UK's regional papers?
16 November 2011
Human beings cling to the past, ensuring that the nostalgia industry never declines. Indeed, the greater the change, the more it thrives. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the regional newspaper industry as it copes with a range of problems that make it inconceivable it could ever turn back the clock.
Delegates to this week's Society of Editors conference, like so many journalists, are particularly prone to the illusion that there is a magic solution to their industry's long-term decline.
The latest daydreamer is Neil Fowler, former editor of four regional titles, sometime publisher and chief executive of a successful Canadian tabloid and - for three years until 2008 - editor of Which? magazine. In other words, he is vastly experienced and knowledgeable. For the past couple of years, Fowler has been at Nuffield College in Oxford investigating the reasons for the decline in regional newspapers.
His efforts culminated last week in the presentation of a 17,000-word study that amounts to one of the most comprehensive and penetrating historical assessments of the industry.
I am with him through most of his story, which is replete with intelligent analysis as he charts the industry's rise and fall, illustrating the way conglomeration and consolidation led to a small number of companies owning the vast bulk of titles. He notes, tellingly, that even by the early Sixties the downward slide had become apparent.
A decade later, it was clear sales of the regional dailies were falling away. Even so, there were also plenty of launches, profits rolled in and there were a couple of decades of healthy returns despite inexorable circulation falls. Bumper advertising revenue, encouraging the launch of hundreds of free titles of dubious quality alongside paid-for papers, masked the underlying decline.
By the beginning of the millennium, the largest newspaper publishers were enjoying profit margins in excess of 30%. Then came the internet. And then came the recession. Classified advertising - the "rivers of gold" - flowed online to non-newspaper sites. Display advertising slumped. The gradual loss of print buyers accelerated, though weeklies held up far better than dailies.
What has followed in recent years has been a realisation by publishers that they exist in a sunset industry. Yet, amid fast-falling profits, they are required to embrace the net by investing in digital platforms.
For some companies, such as Johnston Press and its new boss Ashley Highfield, the drama has moved into crisis because it borrowed heavily in an era of abundant profits to grow by acquisition, splashing out on groups - such as The Scotsman - now in freefall.
It is haunted by huge loans but the spectre of an industry in terminal decline hangs over its rivals too. This week, the largest of regional publishers, Trinity Mirror, headed by Sly Bailey, announced yet another tranche of job cuts and title closures.
Every company is managing decline. To ensure profitability, they must cut costs. But the cuts - whatever publishers might say about their neutral effect on journalistic output - inevitably contribute to a diminution of editorial quality. That inevitably prompts fewer readers to buy papers, thus reducing circulation revenue.
As circulations go down, so more advertisers pull out. When they do, pagination is reduced, and fewer pages give customers less reason to buy.
This is a spiral of decline - what one stockbroking analyst realistically refers to in financial jargon as "near-term cyclical pressure" allied to "long-term structural uncertainty" - for which there is no apparent cure. Unless, of course, one follows Fowler's well-meaning but, in the main, hopelessly idealistic advice.
His two key recommendations are that indebted publishers should be allowed to default on their debts and that titles unloved by their current "big media" owners should be returned to local ownership "supported by local enterprises, so that local engagement is maximised".
I cannot imagine any creditor agreeing to the former, nor would it be popular - in spite of the special place papers have in the public interest - with other non-media businesses required to pay back loans. The latter is one of those good ideas that is also hopelessly unrealistic.
In a period of financial uncertainty, there is no sign of any enthusiasm for such an enterprise. As Fowler's study demonstrates, the market has matured beyond the likelihood of a turnaround. The future is digital, so I also disagree with his idea that there should be charges for some online content.
However, he does offer some ideas that would be sensible short-term fixes, such as a relaxation of ownership regulations to allow groups to buy, sell and swap titles, and the continued transfer of daily titles into weeklies. I am not saying that there isn't a solution. I am just saying this is not it - and, to be honest, I don't have a better idea myself.
Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism, City University London and writes a blog for the Guardian
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