FEATURE 

Regional Press - trends

The regional press – or should that be regional media – is going through a tremendous amount of upheaval. Changing lifestyles have led to declining sales of the core print product and publishers have responded by diversifying their offering. Andrea Kirkby looks at the trends.

By Andrea Kirkby

Ask some people what's the main trend in regional newspapers and you'll get a glum reaction – declining circulation. The market is getting tougher, the internet is taking a bigger slice of the action, national media have started local launches (such as ITVlocal), and if the economy takes a dive in the next year, things will get worse.

The City certainly seems to believe the bad news, judging by the share prices of regional publishers Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press. Analysts clearly expect a muted performance from the sector in the next couple of years – the valuations of these stocks are among the lowest on the market.

But that is far from being the only story. Local newspaper publishers have changed and are still changing, supplying local information to local people in new ways and with new business models. And some are strengthening their links to their local communities, rather than seeing them weakened.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, says that local papers now compete against an increasing number of different media, not only for mind share and consumer time, but for the advertiser's wallet too. He says, "The demographic and socio-economic climate has changed dramatically" - people don't have the time to read a paper from cover to cover in the evening, as they used to. Instead, people tend to be skim-readers, often reading the paper during their commute.

"The average reading time when I first started in journalism was an hour and a half," he says; now it's much less.

Philip Preston of Archant agrees that lifestyle changes have made a big impact on local papers. "My son is 23," he says. "I asked him, have you ever bought a newspaper? No. He reads them, but he doesn't buy one."

Pagination

At the same time, though, there has been an increase in pagination. Bob Satchwell believes this has been driven by the demand from advertisers. And they also have to compete with fat national papers. So, at the same time as readers are taking less time to read the paper, they're being given much more choice of what to read.

"Ten years ago", Satchwell says, "papers were already beginning to thicken up a bit. The Cambridge Evening News in 1984 would sometimes produce a 20 page Monday paper. Nowadays, the smallest paper you're likely to produce is twice that size."

Philip Preston says the increase in paginations can be a problem. "The Friday property supplement last year got to the point it was too big, and it was causing distribution problems." Research that the University of East Anglia carried out for Archant showed that there was an optimum pagination – once that size was exceeded, sales actually started to fall. However, he admits newspapers have tended to get bigger – particularly the EDP's Saturday edition.

Pagination also increased at the Birmingham Mail when it was relaunched in October 2005 – by a total of forty percent. The paper committed itself to carrying far more detailed information, instead of offering a more generic news agenda. The local press may have been accused of 'dumbing down' by offering lifestyle sections and celebrity stories – but there's far more information of all types contained in most local papers than was the case ten or fifteen years ago.

Design

Design has changed, too. It's easy to dismiss this as just window dressing, but design can certainly grab a reader's attention. Bob Satchwell believes that even though content is the key focus, design is "something to catch people's eyes" and draw them into the paper. But Philip Preston says that design can also give readers important messages about the newspaper's relevance to them. Research on the Norwich Evening News has showed that it's not just the story that readers consider when they're judging whether the newspaper is addressed to them - "The design, the typefaces, headings, choice of picture, have a big bearing on how the paper comes across."

The Evening News redesign, launched on January 1st, 2005 – a brave choice of date – was specifically intended to appeal to the younger generation, 20 to 30-somethings. But Preston admits that some older readers didn't like it – and walked.

Colour isn't a new thing – both the Archant Norwich papers have been full colour on every page since new presses were installed in 1994. But the colour palettes have changed; the Evening News now has much stronger colours.

Nor is tabloid format a new thing in local papers – the nationals are late on the scene in that regard. Only a few papers, like the Northern Echo, retained broadsheet format till comparatively recently; it offered a tabloid version for the first time in 2006, and went fully tabloid last year. Again, changing formats can be explained in terms of lifestyle changes; with readers often reading the paper while on the move, or at work, rather than at home, a compact design is important.

Editions

There's a general trend to fewer editions. The local paper is no longer readers' major source of breaking news – the radio, rolling TV or the internet fill this space – so there is no reason to print a 'late' edition to include the most recent news.

The Southampton based Southern Daily Echo, for instance, went from six to two editions a day. Norwich Evening News has gone from two to one.

Bob Satchwell says that cutting editions makes sense in terms of cutting costs – but also because the market has changed. "In some cases, dailies which have gone to one edition, and gone to printing overnight, made the decision on the basis of the change in lifestyles."

For the same reasons, a number of papers have changed from evening to morning newspapers. The Birmingham Evening Mail dropped the 'evening' and became the Birmingham Mail with its 2005 relaunch – believing there is no real need for an evening newspaper.

Philip Preston comments, "There are quite a few evenings that have become mornings." And he says the Evening News is moving towards earlier delivery times; one of the two timed editions has been cut, mainly to save cost, and the paper now hits the streets around 10.30am or 11am. But it won't be changing its name any time soon, even though he admits it's not "an evening paper as such".

While timed editions are being cut, a number of local papers have increased the number of geographical editions. The Express & Star, in Wolverhampton, is probably the leader in this field, with eleven separate local editions. The Birmingham Mail, too, has expanded local coverage with seven geographical editions introduced in 2005 as part of editor Steve Dyson's "return to grass roots" strategy.

Research in Birmingham showed that consumers often gave the lack of relevant local stories as a reason for not buying the paper. Stories which were seen as 'too local' were often not reported. However, the jury is still out on how well this style of ultra-local edition works. Indeed, the Birmingham Mail have recently reviewed their policy and have reverted to fewer editions of the main paper, but have rebranded their free weekly as the Birmingham Mail Extra and these bring the more local news to the residents of Birmingham.

Cost cutting

One trend that's certainly not a surprise is that regional papers have had to cut costs, in some cases quite severely. While many have been investing in online activity and video journalism, print journalism has often borne the brunt of cost cuts, leading to accusations that local papers lack the resources required for investigative journalism and are 'dumbing down' as a result. Archant's recent decision to replace some sub-editors on its Suffolk titles with non-journalist designers is just one example of the paring down of news teams.

Bob Satchwell believes that publishers need to be very careful in managing their editorial resources. "Sensible publishers and managers know that the key to any media operation is that you've got to win an audience, and you only do that by producing content that they want," he says. He warns that reducing journalist numbers can create a vicious circle; with less relevant content, readers forsake the paper, circulation falls, and more job cuts need to be made – and so on, until there's no newspaper left.

But he believes most papers are managing to keep their costs tight while maintaining their creative flair. "Editors and journalists are much better at analysing their marketplace and are much more media savvy than they were," he asserts.

The advent of the internet and the requirement for multipurpose content have probably made the biggest change to most journalists' working lives. That's a trend that was just beginning ten years ago, but has picked up pace in the past four or five years, notably with Johnston Press's converged newsroom, piloted in Preston and now rolled out around the group. JP management points out that the converged newsroom model isn't just about putting web and print journalism together – it's also about increasing the level of interaction with readers. In turn, that can provide editors with better information on what issues readers want to see covered – and enable them to focus the content of the newspaper more clearly.

Ageing readership

One issue that most local papers have to deal with is the ageing readership. Younger readers are often missing – and this doesn't just mean teenagers; 20-30 year olds have been a difficult market for many regional papers to address. In the major cities, free papers such as Metro, London Lite and the MEN free edition have attracted younger readerships, but as Philip Preston ruefully noted earlier in this article, younger readers don't seem to have got used to the concept of actually buying their own newspapers. He believes the MEN's mix of paid and free versions may be a model other regionals are driven to adopt – though the paid-for title will remain the flagship.

Market segmentation

One of the biggest problems facing regional papers is that, in an increasing segmented media world, the local newspaper still has to be, to some extent, 'all things to all people'. National newspapers are able to target particular demographics much more precisely.

Bob Satchwell says that the challenge for local papers is "not about going to one market segment – it's about fighting for its community." While he admits that a newspaper still needs to know its demographics – to run stories which will be relevant to the bulk of the readership – he believes a local paper which segments its readership too narrowly will fail in its most important task.

That's where special editions and supplements really come into their own. While they're part of the general trend towards higher paginations – and of course have an important part to play in advertising strategy – they also present papers with a means of reaching a targeted readership with the supplement, while maintaining the newspaper's inclusive character.

Lynne Anderson of the Newspaper Society says that, "All mainstream media are experiencing audience fragmentation and the regional press is no exception." But she points out that regional publishers are in fact perfectly placed to exploit two key trends - localisation and personalisation.

Philip Preston believes supplements are absolutely key in segmenting the market. He says, "In terms of meeting the needs of traditional local newspaper readers, they see the same every day, but different sections can be targeted at different markets." For instance, the Evening News has introduced a 'Life matters' section aimed at the female market; and the jobs section appeals to a younger readership. (Unfortunately, the jobs section has seen falling circulation in the last couple of years.)

The Saturday EDP is a particular success story, Preston says. The premium priced edition includes a Saturday magazine with TV guide, and a 'Sunday' section. Saturday was originally a rather weak circulation day for most local papers – now, it's the EDP's best day in terms of sales.

Expanding portfolios

Product development at Johnston Press has included not only supplements to regional titles, but an increasing portfolio of lifestyle magazines. In Edinburgh, it has launched a new magazine targeted at younger readers. Portfolio expansion enables the publisher to "layer the market", improving its ability to target particular audiences. Archant has also created a stable of local magazines, with a somewhat more upmarket audience than its core newspaper readership.

Johnston Press has also launched a number of 'hyper-local' products such as community newsletters. These are typically free monthly titles addressing communities of around 3,000 to 5,000 homes – far smaller than a weekly or daily newspaper's reach. In Aylesbury, titles such as the Fairford Leys Herald or Quarrendon & Meadowcroft Herald enable the publisher to run "stories that can't be fitted into the Bucks Herald".

Perhaps the overall trend now is for publishers to expand away from the local newspaper – while retaining its core values and local relevance. Supplements are the start of this centrifugal movement; the launch of other magazines is the next step; and finally, publishers move to multi-platform publishing. The Manchester Evening News, for instance, is no longer a pure newspaper publisher, but the focus of a multimedia brand encompassing television, radio, and print – and with both daily and weekly titles.

Media companies

While not everyone in the sector will agree, many companies are already redefining themselves as local media companies rather than local newspaper publishers. Tim Bowdler says he can see Johnston Press "becoming a broad-based media company" and including TV and radio as well as print – though print will remain at the core of the business. And the recently announced Johnston Press annual results included a paragraph stating that, "Whilst we envisage local and regional newspapers remaining at the heart of our activities for an indefinite period, our mission statement is quite deliberate in making no mention of specific media channels."

The move into other media also implies that circulation is going to become a less useful number in future – companies will define their media power by reach, instead. The EDP carried out research showing that its reach within the local community was 85% – with 80% buying the paper and 57% using the EDP24 website.

Bob Satchwell believes local papers are still not doing enough to "preach the reach", and should be selling themselves much better. Lynne Anderson also has a vision of the local publisher as an evolving multimedia sector, "employing many thousands of journalists and newsgatherers dedicated to providing local news and information to readers and viewers across a multitude of platforms – paid, free, print, online and broadcast."

The Economist in 2006 described newspapers as an endangered species. Life isn't easy for the local newspaper, surrounded by competitors and with a desperate need to reinvent the medium for a new generation. And yet it would be a brave – some would say foolhardy – person who would predict the demise of our local papers.