Mobile navigation


The cliff edge looms – but who is controlling the steering wheel?

Last year, Neil Fowler argued for radical action if regional and local newspapers across the United Kingdom were to have a future. Some re-arranging of the deck-chairs has taken place, but not everything is inspiring confidence. Neil takes a look at the changing management structures within the UK regional press.

By Neil Fowler

In 1999, shortly after Trinity had taken over Mirror Group (never kid yourself that it was a merger – the upstart from the north west of England took over the big kid in the capital) to form Trinity Mirror, Philip Graf, formerly CEO of Trinity and then in charge of the new combine, asked Pat Pilton, managing editor of the Daily Mirror, to have a detailed look at the possible synergies between the national and regional divisions.

Pat was a good choice. He was a former regional editor (the Sunday Sun in Newcastle and the South Wales Echo in Cardiff) and had a high-ranking track record across the national sector; he was known, liked and respected on both sides of the fence, so he was probably one of a very short list of those who could make it happen.

Clear blue water

But he had a hard task; previous attempts at integrating editorial services between regional and nationals had generally failed and many publishers had deliberately left the blue water between the two relatively clear and undisturbed.

Northcliffe had always had very separate reporting and managerial lines between itself and Associated, which even led to a point in the late 1980s when Northcliffe decided to abandon the mother ship’s in-house legal service and go to an outside contractor.

When Thomson owned both the then Times Newspapers and Thomson Regional Newspapers, no real attempts were made at a solid cohesion.

To be fair, managements were always concerned that Fleet Street’s notorious industrial practices, as perfected by the craft unions, would permeate in to areas that made money – so the clear blue water was maintained. History shows that the unions were probably quite content to maintain that gap for exactly the same reason. They had power in the regions, but were relatively benign in comparison.

Potential synergies at Trinity Mirror

But the takeover of Mirror Group came at a different time and offered a significant opportunity. The craft unions had been broken many years before and the new company was being led by those with lengthy regional experience. The national boys (this was pre Sly Bailey) were generally sidelined. The deal had been approved by the City, because it had been argued by Trinity that serious savings and synergies could be developed.

Some, such as press integration, would take time to materialise; others, such as those contrived via editorial co-operation, should be more immediate – so there was a fair amount riding on Pat’s shoulders.

There were some obvious opportunities – low-hanging fruit in the managerial parlance of the time. The classic example Pat came up with was coverage of a Liverpool-Newcastle United Premiership football game on a Saturday afternoon.

Between the demands of the nationals (the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the People) and those of the titles published out of Trinity’s Merseyside and Tyneside centres (the Liverpool Echo, the Daily Post, the Journal, the Evening Chronicle, the Sunday Sun plus the two related Saturday night sports specials) the company was able to field its own XI, plus a couple of subs, of photographers, including agency and PA, who were all earning in some way the Trinity shilling – and this was before Pat starting to look at the scribes…

Work was carried out to try to sort out nonsenses like that, but in general, the clever work that was needed to make this achieve anything of lasting value gradually petered out over the years. The national editors (P. Morgan Esq was running the Daily Mirror at the time) weren’t that bothered – in fact a Welsh Daily Mirror was launched in to the South Wales market at about the same time) and the senior editorial executives in Scotland saw themselves as being above such shenanigans.

Since then, of course, the obvious synergies have taken place. Trinity Mirror formed a separate division for it presses many years ago, as did Northcliffe and Associated; back offices were automated and combined, but still it all seems rather the same.

All of which is a long introduction to say that what goes around, comes around.

Management merry-go-round

As I write, the new CEO of Trinity Mirror, Simon Fox, is about to announce his senior management reshuffle. Mark Hollinshead, whose empire in recent years has grown from running the Scottish Daily Record to include responsibility for the London Mirror titles, is to have the regionals added to his portfolio, with divisional incumbent Georgina Harvey heading off to pastures new.

What does it all mean? Will it help the regionals? Will it bring benefit? Hollinshead has a solid background outside London – and presumably Fox will want to see more integration – though the cupboard of resources may be so bare now not to allow that to have that much impact.

But is it ground breaking or are we just seeing the deck-chairs being re-arranged – so that new CEOs like Fox and Ashley Highfield at Johnston Press can be seen to be doing something? Are these new structures actually likely to achieve anything?

A look at the last two years shows that Trinity Mirror, Johnston and Northcliffe have been thinning their management structures. Senior editors have gone to be replaced by cheaper (and generally less experienced) models, editor-in-chief positions, such as John McLellan’s at The Scotsman Publications, have been abandoned, divisions have been merged and the amalgamation of resources has increased apace.

Some editors have become managing editors; Northcliffe have introduced publishers in some centres, though apart from having the right to hire and fire editors, traditionally in the gift of the group managing director, it is hard to see how different they are to the old local MD. Tough profit demands are still said to be coming down the line from corporate HQ, so the local room for manoeuvre, said to be central to these new roles, is probably quite limited.

But what are the reasons for these changes? Is it just cost-cutting or are there deeper explanations? Ideally, profundity and the long-term would be the main drivers, but some of the supporting evidence is a little thin.

At the same time, it has produced the occasional absurdity.

Steve Brown, once one of Northcliffe’s youngest ever managing directors when he was at Hull, was a driving force at Trinity Mirror for 13 years. He headed up the North East division, before being given the Midlands as well and was generally perceived to have done a good job before being shown the door, ironically, by Georgina Harvey in 2009, as part of a rationalisation programme. He then went to the family-owned Claverly Group (Express & Star, Wolverhampton amongst others) as CEO for eight months before leaving; he was then taken on by Johnston Press to head up its northern division for 19 months before, again, being rationalised out. Currently he is an interim managing director for two publishing centres in… Northcliffe. As I said, what goes around, comes around.

In broad terms, there is little evidence that any of these changes are anything more than mere top slicing of a more expensive level of resource. Of the bigger companies, that appears to be the case at Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe; Newsquest has always had a low-cost management structure and probably can’t do too much to reduce it further. Medium-sized publishers such as Tindle and Iliffe, too, have generally tended to be light in numbers at the top.

Centralisation at Johnston Press

However, of all the management changes that have been taking place, it is those at Johnston that are the most interesting because they are core to a quite distinct philosophy – that of a massive centralisation hitherto unknown in the local or regional press.

Its moves have been highly controversial. It has flattened its management layers and the streamlining that has been a trademark of back office and printing functions has found its way into editorial and advertising.

Two call centres, down from nine, now handle its classified; subbing is heading the same way with two hubs at Peterborough and Sheffield looking after much of its output. And all this comes as Johnston has amalgamated editorships, converted five of its daily titles in Northampton, Kettering, Halifax, Peterborough and Scarborough to weeklies and has embarked on a process of group-wide, standardised and templated pages on to which reporters write directly, often composing their own headlines, with a much lower level of editing and revision, and which will allow a much smaller degree of local autonomy.

Jobs continue to go and journalists, in particular, are crying foul. In this process over recent months, Johnston has made a succession of announcements detailing changes, more often than not accompanied by a reduction of staff numbers.

Templating, per se, is a difficult case to argue against. Does it matter that the Boston Standard looks the same as the Eastbourne Herald as the Northampton Chronicle & Echo? Probably not, as few readers ever see publications outside their own locality, and as long as enough freedom is given to allow customised pages when news demands dictate.

But the quality of the content does. And this is where the new Johnston structure may be lacking. CEO Highfield has already had to postpone the upcoming relaunches of some of his publications after admitting that perhaps the quality of what some of his newspapers was producing wasn’t quite right.

So this is the conundrum. Print revenues continue to fall; digital revenues, though increasing, are not doing so at anywhere near the required replacement rate (and nor are they likely to do so); flatter, lower cost editorial procedures are in place; but the cost to standards that will retain the reader remains highly questionable.

Since the days of Tim Bowyer and the aggressive acquisition spree that took place on his watch, Johnston has become known as a top-down business. That has increased dramatically under Highfield. Others will be watching for the results. They will already be planning.

One group of watchers is, of course, the City. In recent weeks, as Simon Fox has moved in to Sly Bailey’s old manor and Ashley Highfield’s plans have gradually been rolled out, the shares in their respective companies have moved – by nearly an astonishing (some might say) 300 per cent: Trinity Mirror from 25½p to 66p, Johnston from 4p to 11½p.

It is true that those share prices were at rock bottom, but their climbs may be indicators of a growth in confidence in what is happening. Perhaps the City, for once, may know something that everyone else doesn’t. The remaining staff at both Trinity Mirror and Johnston will surely be hoping so.