FEATURE 

Northampton talking

The regional newspaper sector is buzzing! Almost half of all regional press titles in ABC membership increased sales in the Jan-June 2003 period. Here, Brian Collett talks to Steve Miles, circulation director of Northamptonshire Newspapers, to get the view from a readership hot-spot.

By Brian Collett

A healthy challenge has been confronting Steve Miles, circulation director of Northamptonshire Newspapers. He operates in a county where the population is steadily increasing. Newcomers – all potential readers – are arriving by the day.

Miles calls the population expansion "dramatic" growth. "New housing is springing up. The county is drawing in a lot of the people," says Miles.

The official figures show Northamptonshire’s population jumped by more than 4 per cent from 604,351 in 1996 to 629,676 in 2001. The newcomers are a good representative social cross-section, mainly under-50s, driven into the Midlands by high property prices in south-east England. The Wellingborough and Northampton areas in particular have grown because of this influx.

And more are likely to be on their way. The Government has a huge expansion plan for the south Midlands.

The challenge is to blend these people into their communities through the company’s two evening newspapers, the Northampton Chronicle & Echo and the Northampton Evening Telegraph. "This is not going to be their home until they belong," says Miles.

He adopts the usual approach of leafleting new housing developments to let the newcomers know that the newspapers are there to report on the issues that affect them, and, importantly, the activities in their area. Miles believes people are interested in their community life as well as the disputes and wrangles that every society has.

Another of his company’s approaches is to promote the newspapers wherever there are community events, making them synonymous with those activities. The newspapers are in evidence at town carnivals, the Corby Highland Gathering for the large Scottish community in the town, and, most particularly, the Balloon Festival, which brings 300,000 people into Northampton in July. The newspaper adds its own wedding fairs, motor show, business exhibition and business awards events. The hope is, of course, that these events will tempt the people who have migrated into the locality to become readers.

The company obviously considers these events are worth the expense. The cost of participation in the Balloon Festival, for example, approaches five figures, says Miles.

This targeting of newcomers is a strategy that has become common as circulation-hungry provincial newspapers intensify their hunt for readers. It is a natural move for an industry whose reader numbers are under threat.

A second challenge for Northamptonshire Newspapers is the retention of the solid core of dedicated readers. The habits even of many people in this group have changed in recent years.

Fewer of these folk knee-deep in the community read the local newspaper from cover to cover every day. They are still loyal readers but many no longer receive or buy the newspaper six days a week. Fewer of them have the newspaper delivered and more are picking it up at the new outlets that have proliferated in recent years, such as supermarkets and petrol stations.

Miles observes several reasons for this readership shake-up. For one thing, other sources of information rival the newspaper for the conveying of information and entertainment. The television screen is one big provider, and with it comes teletext. More people snatch their news from internet sites, too, and here Northamptonshire Newspapers can gain. The company has a website with news content that is intended to stimulate interest in its newspapers.

Second, for many people the daytime is busier and there are more attractions during free time. The leisure industry has exploded in recent years, so visits to restaurants and nights out make demands on time that could otherwise have been spent with a newspaper.

In spite of the changes and the competition for people’s time, Miles reports that his newspapers’ weekly reach of readership is now greater. The Chronicle & Echo has a circulation of 26,711 and the Evening Telegraph sells 30,474, and both circulations are increasing. For five years circulation performance has been relatively stable, but in the period from July to September the Chronicle & Echo has had a steady 0.2 per cent increase and the Evening Telegraph a 0.5 per cent rise. The altered frequency of purchase has not brought down the total numbers sold.

Miles believes the circulations have been maintained partly by the attractions offered by the newspapers night by night.

"As an industry we have made it much easier for people to dip in and dip out," he says. Both newspapers make a special feature of sport on Monday, business on Tuesday, property on Wednesday, jobs on Thursday, and motoring on Friday. The Saturday Chronicle & Echo runs a comprehensive television guide and Saturday’s Evening Telegraph carries a village neighbourhood news section. "We have compartmentalised the content," says Miles.

Today’s readers, however, need more. Perhaps it is a result of the harsh competition for leisure time but Miles declares newspapers must give readers added value to hold their loyalty. Promotions, therefore, are a must, and Miles regards the Daily Mail as a leader in this field. Its "fantastic promotions" are a lesson to all newspapers. "I believe there should be promotional content in the newspaper each and every day that more than justifies spending 34p," says Miles.

Promotions, which may involve the collection of tokens for a reward at the end, or a competition for a luxurious holiday, all grab the attention of a reader who might otherwise have bought a different newspaper or found something else to do.

Giving away money is always successful, says Miles. The company recently made 60 Northamptonians millionaires in foreign currencies, and readers liked the feeling. In a promotion this summer more than 200 local community groups rallied support to collect tokens for six weeks for the chance to win a minibus. Token collections are usually spread over four or six weeks to maintain the interest.

An ambitious promotion being repeated this year involves Barclaycard, a big local employer. Schools are invited to make a wish and the judges award one big prize and several smaller ones, largely financed with £25,000 from Barclaycard. Last year a school received £8,000 for an all-weather play area and trail. Registrations for this year’s promotion are flooding in.

Local involvement is a feature of the newspapers’ promotions, but many of the prizes are provided by blue-chip national brands.

Another factor, however, is important in the circulation struggle. That factor is quality in a world where expectations are constantly rising. "We must give the people what they want," says Miles. "The offerings produced by the nationals are ever improving and we must be able to compete. Therefore, a supplement needs to be of significant quality if it is to win pride of place on the coffee table all through the week.

The television guide is an obvious example, of course, because it details a whole week’s programmes, but Miles clearly wants the same for the motoring, property and other supplements.

The special supplements are great for the reader with a niche interest. The sport enthusiast must love the Monday issue of the newspaper, but what about the non-sporty type? Miles insists there should always be something extra to give the newspaper wider appeal.

Monday is a good example at Northamptonshire Newspapers. "Our best-performing night is Monday," he says. "Earlier in the year we invested in an additional eight pages of free advertisements on Mondays. These pages are on yellow newsprint. This is because the section has to look as though it is added value, something extra. We look at every night of the week in that way and ask ourselves what we can give people – what do they want?"

The effect of the free ads pull-out has been noticeable. Monday used to be a flat night for circulation. Monday sales have now risen by 2.2 per cent. A new, trimmed and stitched leisure magazine, The Guide, has just been added to the Friday evening newspapers and a Saturday version is being considered. Miles says that for other evenings the company will listen to what readers say they want.

Here Miles moves on to another aspect of the armoury used in the battle to woo readers. The yellow newsprint catches the eye, and Miles is committed to making it easy for the reader to spot and find the goodies inside the newspaper. Attractions on the inside pages are signposted on the front page, along with the special features still to come on other nights of the week.

The huge changes in buying patterns and the greater volatility of the market are good for the customer, admits Miles, but they have made life more difficult for the publisher.

He points to an incident in September that illustrates one of the disadvantages of the new marketplace. A fatal pile-up that closed the M1 outside Northampton caused painfully long tailbacks. "The crash slowed up the county that day," recalls Miles. Because newsagents no longer have a monopoly on the distribution of newspapers and people buy from other outlets, circulation suffered a few dents. Customers were delayed and did not make their regular stop at the convenience store or did not have the time to pop into the supermarket. Miles estimates the Chronicle & Echo lost nearly 2,000 sales that day. Fortunately, it was a freak incident and the M1 is not usually a handicap to the newspaper.

There is an answer to this kind of glitch in sales, though Miles agrees it could be years away from perfection. As with so many advances today, technology may solve the problem.

Miles says that before the end of the year it will be possible to download a digital copy of the newspaper and print it off in the home. It will work, too, for expat Northamptonians, says Miles. At present the exile pays through the nose for the newspaper subscription, and three days late at that. Digital means will bring it to him on the day and at a fraction of the present cost.

Think as well of the cost of home deliveries to the outlying rural areas. The newspaper printed out in the home would produce a welcome saving.

The other side product is that the cover price issue would be less pressing, says Miles.

He also looks forward to the day, possibly ten years from now, when digital print technology will enable cost-effective shorter runs, allowing the publisher to editionise not only geographically or by time but by demographic profile and individual interest. Miles hopes niche readers will be able to get an edition that suits their tastes. The motoring enthusiast, for example, might get the newspaper with the car features, and the arty type might have the one with the fuller theatre reviews.

For the more immediate future Miles is concerned about the branding of his newspapers. At present he thinks the image given by the newspapers’ presence in the circulation area is not quite right. Publishers who become complacent about their image in a changing world, take note.

Miles reports: "Our brand exposure is good but I am not sure it reflects us as positively as it should. It looks a little too 1990s, though it was right for that time." Gradually, founts and layouts begin to look dated. The process is slow and almost undefinable, though it is discernible. One innovation just introduced is a rebranding of the Chronicle & Echo, with a strapline announcing: "Northampton, now you’re talking". The company is working on something similar for the Evening Telegraph.

How will the company’s website help? As well as whetting people’s appetite for the newspapers, it directs them to their own area news and could eventually excite an interest in the geographical editions, though it is too early yet to say how it has promoted newspaper sales.

The question frequently asked about internet communication of news is whether websites will replace newspapers. Miles is confident the product will survive. He says emphatically: "The great thing about newspapers is their physical portability. You can carry a newspaper about, you can take it to the kitchen, you can give part of it to another member of the family. I think the printed form has a great future. It is not going to be superseded by the screen."

Miles is as concerned with complacency about content as about branding. Market research is a continuing activity in the quest to know what changes should be made, and focus groups composed of representatives of all social groups are organised for people to talk about what they want.

These ask-the-public exercises have already brought benefits. The company found that readers hated the system whereby they used a premium-rate line to telephone in free advertisements. The system was scrapped. The focus groups also helped the newspapers’ editors to decide which columnists should have greatest prominence.

The circulation director of Northamptonshire Newspapers goes back to basics: "It is corny to say to people that it is their newspaper, but it is true."

Miles believes the regional press is "fantastically healthy". Sales throughout the country have been sustained and readership is growing, and this is partly because there is an ageing population and greater life expectancy, he says. Miles explains: "An ageing population is good for the regional press. These are the people who mature into the regular reading habit. The more there are, the more will grow into the newspaper."