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Running on empty

In its battle for survival, the regional press embarked on a programme of cost cutting and centralisation. But have they gone too far, asks Carolyn Mackinnon-Ure. Will these measures, introduced to save local papers, actually end up killing them off, as publishers find they no longer have the expertise or manpower to compete effectively?

By Carolyn Mackinnon-Ure

How things have changed in the last ten years! When the half yearly ABCs were posted, we used to all eagerly await the 12 noon arrival of the figures and spent the rest of the afternoon, and for some of us, late into the evening, delving into the figures to glean as much information about who was doing what and how other titles were performing. We would then hit the phones over the following days, ringing our colleagues to see how they had achieved their results – was there anything new to learn – what had caused their results to be that much better than our own (albeit still in decline) - any new initiatives?

Ten years later, and the regional press is still in decline. But is it now simply accepted as the norm, with executives just lying low for a few days, waiting for the furore of the ABC figures to die down?

Bleak ABCs

So is there any good news out there? According to the Press Gazette, only one of the UK's 86 regional daily newspapers grew sales year-on-year in the first half of 2010 - the DC Thomson-owned Dundee Evening Telegraph. That paper managed to grow its sale by 0.4 per cent year-on-year to 23,269. All the other titles were down. The figures released back in August by ABC revealed that the pace of decline had slowed since the depths of the recession a year ago, when no titles grew. The picture among the local weeklies was not much better either, with a reported ninety per cent of paid-for weekly local and regional papers in the UK recording year-on-year falls in circulation in the first-half of 2010.

‘Audience’ has become the new buzz word, but it’s not really fooling anyone. The reality is a hard bitter pill to swallow, so what can be done about it?

Necessary cost cutting has taken many experienced individuals out of the regional press, and I am one of those. When I joined the industry in 1975, I suppose I never expected to still be there 35 years later; time has flown by with good times and bad, certainly more of the former than the latter in my case, and I totally understand the cost cutting but wonder if there is a real strategy in play anymore or is it just a case of reduce the costs whatever?

Call centre vs field force

Call centres or contact centres are becoming the norm in the larger regional groups and I endorse this if the only contact you need to have with your customers is by telephone; where I think this goes wrong is that there is still a need to have a physical presence out in the marketplace, however limited. This is the expensive part which publishers believe they can do without – but some field presence, albeit on an infrequent basis, is still required. I can hear my old colleagues now saying that they have such presence in each of their offices – I would only ask, “are they really out in the field” or undertaking offices duties (administration) because there is no one left to do this? Equally, how much quality time is really given to understanding what the issues are – again with such limited resources, when does anyone get the time to really analyse what the tangible concerns are?

Now, don’t get me wrong; I absolutely understand that the industry has had to cut costs, but there doesn’t seem to be the same emphasis anymore on understanding what can be done, or should be done, to slow the decline.

The right product?

So, what are the issues? Newspaper sales has never been complicated. Getting the basics right each and every day / week was always the watchword and the old analogy of right product, right place, right time and in sufficient quantities is still the starting point.

One of the biggest strengths of the regional press is its localness, but are the titles now local enough? Editorial departments have been cut right back, which has given the opportunity to enterprising individuals who can produce local information on a website or hyperlocal free directory. In some areas, small operations have set up, often run by individuals who have previously worked for regional publishers – they are working small areas and providing a service in that locality. I accept they are probably not making a fortune, but they feel passionate about providing the local information and, guess what; people still want this. So, how can the regional press get back on this particular bandwagon? Some newspapers are trying to get into partnership with these individuals to provide their local content online - but are the online revenues going to be able to sustain this? More importantly, should a proportion of this content be in print rather than online?

Many publishers now produce editions which arrive with the national newspapers; readers feel they are getting out-of-date news. Readers also feel that the titles are not produced locally. Along with the earlier deadlines, many publishers have reduced the quality of the newsprint which, coupled with smaller paginations, gives a product which is thin and probably regarded by the consumer as not value for money. I accept that in many cases, the above are sometimes perceptions, but I was taught many years ago that perception in the eye of the beholder is reality. What are the titles doing to stop this perception? This is a huge challenge that needs to be addressed. Regional editors were the bedrock of the industry, but are too many of them being caught up in the dreaded time consuming task of budgetary control rather than ensuring that the most relevant, up-to-date product is produced every day?

The right place?

Moving on to the right place; there are still plenty of retailers, but they are having a really tough time at present and I have to ask myself what publishers are doing to help them through these unprecedented times? There are now scientific ways of ensuring that the right amount of product arrives with the retailer, if publishers are smart enough to use a supply management tool (if you don’t, investigate getting one) – sometimes with a live news bill, sometimes not, and I will come back to the merits of news bills in a moment. What happens next; well if you are really lucky, the retailer will still give the local newspaper a till position and if there are still any branded stands available, the title will be displayed on those, but many of the multiple retailers have now adopted the same cube type arrangement that supermarkets use, and the local titles become “one of the many” on the stands. How do you then get across what’s in the paper and give a buying signal?

Supermarkets too are now one of the challenges that the regional press face. They are notoriously difficult to deal with as the stores themselves have to operate with head office procedures but often you will find that local managers have different arrangements with the regional press. However, with more titles now being delivered by wholesale, they arrive at the same time as the national newspapers. Many regional titles still have their own point of sale in supermarkets, but the vast majority of titles now are positioned in the newspapers / magazines section, so if customers don’t visit this section (ie. make a conscious buying decision), the local title has lost its impact. Some titles have agreements in place to ensure their visibility in supermarkets, but many run scared of the threat of head office procedures.

Publishers need to work with local retailers and supermarkets alike. They need to understand what is happening and work out ways to maximise the sales through these outlets. Simple initiatives such as getting staff in shops, or indeed on the supermarket till, to “sell not serve” is just one way; it works – how many times do we get asked if we would like to buy sweets or chocolate when we make our purchases – why not the local newspaper – but it needs to be thought out and consistent and not just a one day initiative that gets so easily forgotten.

Localised billing (I said I would come back to it) is one of the incredible strengths of the regional press, but is it a dying art? And where bills do exist, do they tell or do they sell? Bills provide an opportunity to get your brand and message in front of your potential readers. A good bill will draw readers in, but a badly put together one will become “wallpaper” and not relevant. Don’t lose this valuable tool.

The right time?

The majority of the regional press now deliver their products through wholesale – done for a variety of different reasons but primarily cost. But I ask, what do the readers really want, what time do they buy or want to buy the product – does anybody know anymore? Is anyone asking retailers these questions? Equally, does anyone ask the retailer for feedback from the consumers? A short questionnaire to retailers, maybe with a small incentive to return it back, may give some insight into readers’ habits. It’s not hard, it’s not costly, but is it too much trouble?

There is a danger that promotions are being undertaken for the wrong reasons, one of these being revenue. Revenue can, and does, have a place in the promotional calendar, but again do we really know what readers want – or are publishers deluding themselves that the promotions are really increasing sales or is it that the promotion encourages multi purchases? I am an advocate of working with local companies wherever possible – it shows the strength and reach of the product and gets customers through their doors. If they are going in for a free sample or a discount voucher, they are often more likely to go back again at some other time. I know that there are plenty of voucher websites available and national brands will indeed go in this direction – but what of those local advertisers? Surely this is an area where publishers can really work in partnership with them to make a difference. Promotions also need variety, and should not be repetitive.

Undoubtedly the internet has to be the biggest challenge to the regional press – why buy a newspaper when you can get the news free online? I believe there is a place for both but there has to be a clear strategy on what is provided and in what medium – a massive challenge and indeed opportunity, but whilst the ever present issue of cost cutting takes centre stage, I fear that when this dies down, time will have marched on and left many publishers behind. So, understand what your customers and readers really want, rather than what you think they want – ignore them at your peril.