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The Journal Relaunch – a trip down memory lane

In 1992, to great fanfare, The Journal switched from broadsheet to tabloid. A huge amount of effort and resource had gone into the relaunch. 25 years on, editor at the time Neil Fowler looks back at a dramatic north east change and ponders its relevance to today.

By Neil Fowler

The Journal Relaunch – a trip down memory lane
Some of the relaunch team: From left: John McLellan, assistant editor; Neil Fowler, editor; Alan Geere, executive editor; Pat Pilton, the then editor of TRN's South Wales Echo.

I was somewhat alarmed to open the most recent edition of this august journal to see the editor commenting on the word relaunch in his editorial. He had already commissioned this article. Surely, he wasn’t to nullify my musings.

James Evelegh was saying that the redesign of InPublishing was a refresh rather than a dreaded relaunch – and he was refreshingly (if I may) candid about what had happened. It’s all cosmetic, he said, with the clear implication that the content wasn’t changing, becoming more incisive, or more detailed. This wasn’t a change for change’s sake, he said. Or to say that he was giving the reader something better – as he understood that in saying that he would be diminishing what had gone before.

He equated the word ‘relaunch’ to having, these days, a touch of desperation about it. A little harsh perhaps, but in print terms, possibly fair, especially in these days of declining revenues. But was it always thus?

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the general concept of relaunch, especially when new editors in the regions were concerned, was widespread. Would-be editors would concentrate their job pitches on what was wrong with the product they were targeting (ie. highlighting the incompetence of their predecessors) and how wonderful it would all be after their relaunch. The relaunch could be seen as a most visible way of announcing their arrival. And the web was barely a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.

The relaunch could be seen as a most visible way of announcing their arrival.

Relaunch – with pride

I was one such editor – so the refreshing of InPublishing brings me back nicely to a dramatic change made 25 years ago, where certainly the word ‘relaunch’ was used widely – and with pride.

The event was the launch (I will omit the ‘re’ on this occasion) on February 22, 1992 of The Journal, a morning newspaper in the north east of England, as a tabloid after some 159 years as a broadsheet.

I was the fortunate editor. Fortunate as I suspect that this (re)launch was one of the last great (re)launches in regional newspaper history. It was great not because of the excellent work that the talented editorial team brought to the project – though great that was – but great because of the massive investment in time and money granted to it by the then owners, the Thomson Corporation.

Little did we know that some three and half years later, the Corporation would make what would turn out to be one of the most prescient exits in business history by selling its UK regional arm, Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN), to Trinity. How did it know what was going to happen to the news business?

But at this time, TRN was riding high. And The Journal change was a prime example of the big thinking that had epitomised the group since Roy Thomson had moved into UK newspapers in the 1950s.

Yes TRN (and the Corporation above it) was careful with money, but once it believed in a project, it would not stint from providing significant resources. Hence the attempt at ringing London with new evenings in the 1960s and 1970s; and hence in the 1980s, the founding of Sunday papers for three of the UK’s nations, Scotland on Sunday, Wales on Sunday and Sunday Life in Northern Ireland. These were serious ventures, involving weighty expenditure.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight is far too easy, but it is no exaggeration now to class the TRN policies and achievements of those years as coming from very much a golden age.

It helped that TRN had major multi-title centres in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Belfast and Cardiff as well as Newcastle; these gave great economies of scale that enabled more expansive aspirations. But it still had to do things – and it did. It invested heavily in both journalism and commercial skills. Two innovative training centres were established in Cardiff and Newcastle and, in the 1990s, the heads of many of the major regional groups all wore the title ‘Thomson-trained’.

Once TRN believed in a project, it would not stint from providing significant resources.

Assembling the team

In early 1991, TRN had appointed a new editorial director in Stuart Garner who had great plans to add to the group’s historical successes; the conversion of The Journal from broadsheet to tabloid was high on his agenda. I joined in July of that year to work with the Newcastle managing director Tony Hill’s impressive management team, including one Jim Chisholm who brought a whole new way of thinking towards reader development and retention (and who supplied one or two nuggets for this article).

Stuart had recruited some of the best thinkers in newspapers from the US and elsewhere to help TRN take his great leap forward. In a stellar cast, Christine Urban, Jim Jennings, Una Hayes and Dr Mario Garcia (amongst others) all presented to group executives – and all four were to work with the Newcastle team as we planned the conversion. Fellow InPublishing columnist Alan Geere, at the start of his consultancy career, also joined to assist the editorial plan.

The placing of Garcia with the team exemplified the thinking. He was then arguably the world’s foremost newspaper designer, and certainly its most influential. He sat on an early Mac in the middle of the newsroom and produced a blueprint that in general matched the detailed audience research that had taken place. Much was radical, and in the end proved too radical for some reader groups (salmon-coloured sidebars a particular non-favourite), but it provided a stimulus that motivated the whole project team to be even more adventurous in its ambitions.

A paper of the 1970s morphed in to one for the 1990s overnight.

The plan

Editorially, we tried to develop a product to which both the loyal existing readership would relate and a new cohort would join. We wanted it to retain its role as the daily paper for Northumberland and to reinforce its position as the business daily for the greater Tyneside region. Not an easy position for a tabloid to take, but one we thought was achievable. The team – reporters, subs, photographers and managers – responded magnificently. A paper of the 1970s morphed in to one for the 1990s overnight.

Commercially, the project was probably more ambitious – as, in reality, The Journal, then selling around 50,000 a day with a huge Saturday spike because of its Homemaker section, was at best holding its own financially. True, it shared out the overheads across the business, but it was the Evening Chronicle that made the money. Its then editor Graeme Stanton was generous in his good wishes for the project, despite The Journal taking up that year’s entire promotional budget when by rights much of it should have gone his way.

But this injection of cash meant that a comprehensive marketing plan was established. A stylish television and radio campaign was organised; an intensive rebranding exercise to advertising agencies, wholesalers and retailers was put into action; newly arrived Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan was recruited to launch the new style paper in the centre of the city; the brilliant classified and display departments drew in more revenue; a massive sampling and canvassing operation would take place so that in the first few months of the new tabloid, the whole region would be given a free week of the paper; and more resource in the form of extra pagination, increased colour from the centre’s expensive new presses and new staff were provided.

Comprehensive it certainly was. And being watched carefully too. On February 21, as we prepared the first new-look edition, a good-luck fax arrived from Bob Hall, the head of the Thomson division that The Journal was ultimately part of, and one of Lord Thomson’s closest team. The Journal was but a tiny part of his empire (at the time, Hall was responsible for 21,000 staff and $2bn of revenue) but we were still on his radar.

The relaunch secured the paper as a viable product for the years ahead and gave it a long-term positioning.

The results

The initial result was a 12 per cent hike in sales across the coming year. So, a great success. And the growth was to continue into year two, albeit at a much lower rate.

But what does this exercise in nostalgia mean for today? Did a high-profile relaunch of this kind ever achieve anything of lasting importance? Or did it just put off the coming day of judgement?

On this occasion, the relaunch secured the paper as a viable product for the years ahead and gave it a long-term positioning. Following the changes, the Newcastle centre then possessed three confident main titles with The Journal and the Chronicle being complemented by the ballsy Sunday Sun, also successfully relaunched the previous year. And 25 years on, despite the ravages of the digital revolution, it is still very recognisable as the same newspaper.

A new generation of editors was being recruited by all the major groups – and many broadsheets were changing to tabloids. So many other relaunches (or refreshes) took place in the regional press after that – and some with great results. But few had the weight of a whole group as this one did.

However, few really successful newspapers and magazines appear to go in for public relaunches of this kind. I am old enough to have been delivering the Daily Mail at the time of its last relaunch, 46 years ago, when in its broadsheet form it merged with the tabloid Daily Sketch to emerge in its compact form under current editor Paul Dacre’s predecessor David English – which says a great deal.

I suspect The Sun has also never knowingly told its readers they are getting something better than before – it has just reinforced the message that they are getting something brilliant the whole time. Many confident magazines do the same. They improve and change over time but are always careful not to denigrate what their readers have enjoyed before.

So, does the relaunch have a place today? In the past, it was a way of bringing focus to the team effort and indicating that the editor was doing something. But has that altered with the needs of websites, mobile services and radically changed advertiser activity? Relaunching websites is a different game; they are prepared behind the scenes and just appear on the reader’s screen, whether they are wanted or not.

I think the relaunch of this kind is now a factor of the past. Editors now understand more that print and digital products have to improve and change organically, so that readers feel subconsciously that they are getting a better deal.

Having said that, as I’m sure editors of that era would agree, relaunches were bloody good fun and brought renewed energy to their products. And for that, they were invaluable.