1 August 2014

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Dyson at Large: Stable sales at traditional title

“Bring him to Birmingham” was a frequent comment made about weekly editor Andy Rush when circulation figures were shared in the Midlands boardroom at The Fort.

And I’m sure that the successive managing directors who coined this phrase were only half-joking.

Because while the Birmingham Mail, Birmingham Post (then daily) and Coventry Telegraph all regularly struggled with double-digit declines in full-price sales, trends at Rush’s Loughborough Echo were as flat as pancakes.

Even during the very worst of the recession, between July and December 2009, the Echo’s sales fell just -2.2% to 18,634, a percentage any editor would have given his right arm for in that period.

From countless meetings from 2005 to the end of last year, I can recall tinier declines reported at the Echo, and even two or three six-month periods of incredible but actual marginal growth.

Over three years from the last six months of 2006 to the same period in 2009, a total of 3,302 copy sales fell from an initial circulation of 21,936.

Yes, I know that’s a wounding 15pc fall in sales; but it’s not so painful when compared to many titles whose annual descent is in the same region.

And there are precious few titles whose sales have been as stable during such an ugly three years of multiple cost-cutting programmes, deep recession and, to put it politely, ‘shyness’ about meaningful investment in newspaper marketing.

So what’s Rush doing at the Loughborough Echo that the industry can learn from?

Let’s start with page one: if you’d told me about a black-on-white, Gothic font masthead, contrasted with magazine-style, cut-out boost lines in Impact, a key colour of yellow and a splash with no copy, I’d have scratched my head.

But when I paid my 55p for the Friday June 18 edition, I really liked the tradition mixed with boldness, although personally I’d have still used a write-off and cross reference rather than a WOB box reading ‘Echo opinion see inside’.

Although there was no copy, the boosts very clearly described the highlights, including:

  • ‘Hands off our balls please’, a cheeky splash headline for a defensive plea on page five from a Loughborough University academic who’d designed the World Cup match balls;

  • ‘A6 closed through Kegworth for at least a week’, exactly what it says on the tin, a page nine lead giving the details of what was set to hit thousands of local commuters; and

  • ‘Did you Race for Life?’, a great colour spread of 20 pictures on pages 10 and 11, reporting an event that involved more than 3,300 Loughborough women.

    Note that none of these page one pointers told readers which pages the stories appeared on inside; then the left-hand boost to a fruit and veg store closing did (page seven); but four subsidiary boosts beneath it didn’t.

    I thought this was confusing, but perhaps Rush, with a largely captive audience, likes to get readers thumbing through his pages.

    Inside, there was a healthy count of 150 news reports on 24 editorial pages up to page 27, including the single report on the page 10/11 Race for Life spread.

    There was a good mix of content, these stories from page three being typical of the range:

  • Lead, ‘Eastern Gateway plans are submitted for approval’, (a detailed chat with regeneration chiefs on a major development going ahead at Loughborough rail station despite budget cuts;

  • Second lead, ‘Mum kicks policeman and spits in his face’, a full report with name and address from magistrates;

  • Kicker, ‘Teen girl sexually assaulted on a bus’, an important story carrying a clearly recognisable CCTV shot of the alleged attacker;

  • Column drop, ‘Jobs may go as housing group aims to improve’, telling of 20 redundancies in a cost-cutting programme;

  • Six pars with headshot, ‘Caretaker is still missing’;

  • Four pars, ‘Revamp for part of court is approved’; and

  • Filler par, ‘Eating roadshow’.

    My favourite news story was on page seven, headlined ‘Electronic tag for Pops after breaking ASBO’, telling of the punishment handed out to a 60-year-old with 31 convictions, a drunk “renowned for playing a tin whistle”.

    There were another 10 stories and 10 archive pictures on the ‘Looking back’ spread on pages 28 and 29; 13 letters on pages 30 and 31; and 23 leisure reports in ‘The Guide’ section on pages 33 to 35.

    And then, after the TV listings and 24-page ‘Homeseeker’ section, just when you thought it was all over, there were another 105 reports in a five-page ‘Village news’ and ‘Club call’ section on pages 64 to 68.

    I loved these pages, an eclectic jumble of Parish council reports, village green events and strange crimes that have got up the noses of community correspondents.

    I was fascinated by the hated pastime of ‘car cruising’ in Castle Donington on page 66: “a few residents complained and a number of fixed penalty notices have been handed out”.

    I even found myself wondering whether Henry or Liza were responsible for the bizarre “theft of a metal bucket from the front of a tractor” in East Leake on page 67.

    But best of all was the ‘Smarty pants’ talk given by Dr Audrey Matthews at the Alpha Club, reported on page 68, where locals were “shown undergarments made of various materials such as polymer, very comfortable to wear because the polymer stretches seven times its length, thus enhancing performance”…

    Last but not least were 61 reports on nine sports pages, a lot healthier than many titles reviewed on this blog.

    And it was nice to see the sports byline of ‘Richard Rush’, hinting that the old tradition of families serving on the same newspaper is not dead in Loughborough.

    Andy Rush, by the way, is only the fourth editor in the Echo’s 119-year history.

    As he told HTFP two years ago, he is proud of his title’s “bright, busy and modern look, a traditional feel with no sacrifices made to the number of stories we offer our readers”.

    This certainly seems to have been a simple but successful approach, and I do hope his Trinity Mirror bosses are taking a careful note of the continued progress. While he might not be tempted elsewhere, others could do worse than learn from his experience.

    Read Steve’s previous blog posts here

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  • Steve Dyson worked in the regional press for 20 years, editing weekly, Sunday and daily newspapers in the North East and the Midlands from 2002 until the end of 2009. To contact him, email steve.dysonmedia@googlemail.com.

    Steve’s blog is available via an RSS feed. Click here to subscribe.

    Comments

    clem (30/06/2010 09:14:56)
    Help. I don’t understand the ‘Bring him to Birmingham’ reference.

    Steve Dyson (30/06/2010 09:40:20)
    Sorry Clem. The Loughborough Echo belongs to Trinity Mirror Midlands. The main boardroom meetings of this company were at The Fort in Birmingham, from where we jealously surveyed Andy’s circulation figures.

    My Face Hurts (30/06/2010 11:28:37)
    Please, please, please can we have shorter columns as my retinas can only stand so much staring at HTFP before they implode!! This is now what web journalism is all about

    FAST WOMAN (30/06/2010 11:52:56)
    Face Ache, you must have the attention span of a gnat.
    Subs, you have permission to weep over: ‘This is now what web journalism is all about’

    My Face Hurts (30/06/2010 13:24:28)
    Yeah, yeah, FAST WOMAN, it was supposed to say “This is not what web journalism is all about.” If we are splitting hairs, I called myself ‘My Face Hurts’ not ‘Face Ache’ so there!!!!

    Paul Linford, Editor (30/06/2010 13:33:48)
    In
    teresting debate kicking off here as to what web journalism is all about. Logically, you would think that the unlimited space parameters of the web would enable more in-depth treatment of stories online and encourage writers to produce lengthier pieces than they would neccessarily be able to do in print. Except that this seemingly isn’t what you want, Face Hurts, and you are by no means alone in that. Is this some kind of conundrum, whereby poeople want shorter internet stories even though unlimited space is available, and more in-depth treatment of stories in print despite its limited space? As a web publisher, I’m genuinely interested in the answer.

    Steve Dyson (30/06/2010 14:26:53)
    I think the answer, Paul, is that age-old one: you can’t please all of the people all of the time… A few weeks ago, on the Exeter review, I blogged about 700 words, the shortest to date, and the feedback was that the review was too skinny! But I love feedback, and perhaps today’s 1,000+ words was TOO long. I’m gonna aim for 850 max from next week and see how that goes down… ;-)

    My Face Hurts (30/06/2010 15:35:55)
    It wasn’t my intention to cause a mass debate, but since you ask…….Steve’s column today might not seem so long if you had added another picture to break up the text. I would say in general that we recipients of the HTFP e-newsletter have a few mins to spare each morning or lunch break to wizz over the stories at our computers. This is not something I would try reading on a mobile phone. Even people with more time on their hands may find something of this length and layout a problem to read on a computer screen. It’s a physical thing which is why print and print stories still have their place. I believe HTFP, and websites generally, must think about your audience and the type of people who make up the majority of it – journalists and others with jobs who sit at PCs most of the day. Consuming something of this length is quite difficult and your page view stats may well reflect this.

    FAST WOMAN (01/07/2010 11:50:21)
    Face Ache, rest assured that I know what you called yourself. I was entertaining myself… and still am. Sorry.

    My Face (Still) Hurts (01/07/2010 12:04:12)
    Phew! – Just finished Steve’s column, great read. @FAST WOMAN, I feel sorry for you if that’s your idea of entertainment. Ever tried double clicking the mouse?

    Northern Ed (02/07/2010 11:59:52)
    Hello Steve. In the spirit of constructive criticism, each post probably needs more pictures to illustrate it. Your earlier posts included takeaways which you felt other titles could learn from, but this seems to have stopped. And looking beyond story count and number of pages would be nice – is the photography good, what about layout? Are the ad platforms strong? Do they appear to drive sales? What about the geography helps/hinders sales? Finally, in the last couple of weeks your blogs have started to sound a little bitter towards your former employers – they probably weren’t meant to be, but by dint of them being your former employers, it’s something to be aware of. All the best

    Davy gravy (02/07/2010 16:03:07)
    I think Steve’s bang on about the Echo. Back in the mid-90s I was part of a team from another newspaper group sent to study Loughborough as an area ripe for expansion (by my group, at the expense of the Echo….) After a few weeks looking at the town, and the Echo, we came to the conclusion that the only way to achieve expansion was to buy the Echo! Good to see they are still keeping up the good work….



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