Let the big publishers default on their debts says former newspaper boss
Owners should follow Northcliffe model and convert more dailies to weeklies
Ditch ‘fancy website names’ and use valued newspaper brands online
DMGT needs to decide whether it is “in or out” of regional newspapers
Delivering the 2011 Guardian Lecture at Nuffield College, Oxford, the former boss of four regional dailies set out a series of measures designed to stop the beleaguered industry from ‘falling over the precipice.’
And he called for more titles to be returned to local ownership, suggesting his former employer DMGT could lead the way if it decides it wants “out” of regional newspapers.
In a hard-hitting address from which few local press stakeholders emerged unscathed, Neil was highly critical both of the industry of which he was a part and the government’s attempts to address the crisis now facing it.
He said its attempts to change ownership regulations to make it easier for groups to buy and sell titles had “failed at the first hurdle” with the collapse of the KM Group’s bid to buy Northcliffe’s Kent Regional News and Media titles.
He was also dismissive of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s advocacy of local TV as the solution to the industry’s problems, saying that he had not met a single senior executive who believed it would help them.
And he accused politicians of preferring to “pontificate about Rupert Murdoch” and phone-hacking than address the “real issue” facing journalism – funding the provision of local news.
But Neil was also candid about the industry’s own failure to look ahead during what he called “the golden years of high profits” before the internet.
And he was scathing about its forays into online publishing, saying: “If I want to read the Leicester Mercury online I have to go to the thisisleicestershire.co.uk website and then struggle to be sure that it actually is the same brand that has been established for well over 125 years.”
During a 30-year career in the UK regional press, Neil successively edited the Lincolnshire Echo, Derby Telegraph, The Journal, Newcastle, and The Western Mail. He later edited the consumer magazine Which? before winning the Guardian research fellowship two years ago.
His speech was entitled ‘Have They Got News for You? The rise, the fall and the future of regional and local newspapers in the United Kingdom.’ Here are some extracts.
“The Milly Dowler affair was a new low in journalism in this country and one that horrified all those with links to any part of the news industry – but all this act of criminality has done is to divert time, money and, most importantly, policy thinking away from the real issue facing journalism in this country – and this is the current and future funding of the provision of general news. And that is an issue that is magnified in the regional daily news sector, one of the principal areas of my research.
“Of course the ethics of how we work are fundamental in any open society like ours, and is a vitally important issue, but if there isn’t a news industry to be ethical about, we are somewhat missing the point.
“The political hierarchy in this country find it more fun to pontificate about Rupert Murdoch and his businesses; and as an industry the media has always found it more interesting to discuss the Manchester Guardian rather than the Winsford and Middlewich Guardian.
“I’ve lost count of the number of different judicial and parliamentary inquiries that are taking place in to phone hacking and its first cousins of privacy and injunctions, but who is looking at the real issue – not journalism itself, but the business of journalism? Precious few, I’m sorry to say. ”
On the KM Group-Northcliffe deal:
“The current coalition government has said it recognises the difficulties the regional and local press is facing. It has said that it intends to change ownership regulations to make it easier for groups to buy, sell, and swap titles to enable some greater geographical grouping – well, it has failed at the first attempt with what should have been a logical, easy and straightforward decision.
“The Kent Messenger is not a business that has milked huge profits over the years. Arguably if it had been more ruthless and driven for higher margins in the 1989 to 2007 period, its path through the last four years would have been easier. As its profit margins didn’t have so far to fall, once the pincers of structural and economic change came it had immediate problems.
“This deal would have been good for Kent, good for the industry and a sign that the government actually understood what the position of the sector is.
“Consolidation and title swapping should be made easier, especially geographically. Plurality is a red herring with the competition for both advertising and comment created by the internet and should not used to hold up further mergers. These changes will not necessarily produce vast savings – but will help.”
On the ‘mistakes’ of the regional press industry:
“The regional and local newspaper sector did not research the future in the way that almost every other sector of industry does as a matter of course. During the golden years of high profits between 1989 and 2005 it could have looked ahead but failed to do so. It did not research its customer base effectively. It looked at how they interacted with the newspaper products themselves but did not look at how their lifestyles were changing.
“The groups failed to experiment as the changing market place became apparent. Having 13 or 14 daily centres meant that different business models could have been tried. They weren’t. The sole attempt to be truly radical was by the Manchester Evening News in the mid 2000s when it launched its part-paid/part-free distribution system. Few other trials of any other radical note ever took place.
“Giving all a newspaper’s output away for free on the web has been a disaster. The message that the internet would be the new rivers of gold was always false. Dreaming up new brands for newspaper websites has also been and continues to be, with a few exceptions, a disaster too. I can buy a Mars bar in a variety of forms, I can buy Fairy detergent in different styles – but if want to read the Leicester Mercury online I have to go to the thisisleicestershire.co.uk website and then struggle to be sure that it actually is the same brand that has been established for well over 125 years.
“An end to boom and bust was not just a parliamentary cry. Senior executives did not see the damage that the internet would bring. They did not see that its arrival would merely conclude what had been happening for decades. ”
On what the industry did correctly:
“The industry has been right to cut costs as much as possible. The mistakes of high operating margins was not in making them, it was not using some of them for genuine research and development. Press sharing should have taken place years ago and back office centralisation is a necessity that every business of whatever sector seeks to achieve.
“No-one I have spoken on all sides of the debate has been able to say what could have been done differently to prevent the advertising model changing so radically with the internet. It may be that local newspapers are a victim of a vicious combination of a changed socio-economic environment and advanced technology. Even the most far-sighted of managements may not have proved to be up to the challenge.
“There was an attempt by the industry to seek unity of purpose when it developed the Fish4 brand for classified advertising – but no agreement could be reached and that it is why it struggled until it came under one owner in Trinity Mirror. But to have succeeded it would have had to have done something so counter-intuitive that it would have been almost impossible to sell to its shareholders and to maintain credibility – and that would have been to have included jobs advertising at knock-down prices – and so losing vast amounts of revenue before the power of the internet really became apparent. They would have had to invent Monster.com or even eBay before they’d been invented themselves.
“Small can be beautiful. Sir Ray Tindle has proved that success can come about with careful husbandry and without acquiring huge debt. His papers may be small – but they have retained their markets and look after them. He also has a paywall on his websites. Some news is offered – but you pay if you want to read the product in full.”
On what the industry should do now:
“The industry should continue the bold moves instigated by Northcliffe in turning some of its daily titles to weekly production. In the last few months it has converted four of its daily titles to weeklies – on the back of a successful change to the Bath Chronicle four years ago. These are radical attempts to find solutions for the long-term and should be encouraged.
“Moves should be made to help the three PLCs – Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror in this country – and Gannett in the US – to have, in the words of the moment, an orderly default on their debts. They are all stuck in a no-man’s land of inertia. Their shares are all very low – the individual parts of their companies are clearly more than the present sums – Johnston has a market capitilisation of around £30m and Trinity Mirror just over £100m – but their debts are holding them down. They are having to pull as much cash as possible out of their businesses to service those debts – which is in turn causing those businesses long-term damage.
“They have futures as news business brokers, providing print, back office and technology services to the industry – but I believe a way of returning titles to local ownership is required. The case must be made for the return of the locally owned news business, supported by local enterprises, so that local engagement is maximised. It is good that towns and cities have their own newspapers.
“And in the case of DMGT it must decide whether it is in or out. Its Northcliffe division has made handsome profits for it for 90 years and propped up its Daily Mail for decades. To be fair Northcliffe is now highly innovative in its approach to the market – but for DMGT it barely merits a mention in the annual report. DMGT could lead the way and find a home for these titles amongst local businesses.
“The industry still has time to experiment, to try new models and be brave. There remains a demand for local and regional news and no one else can provide it with the same level of expertise and independence than the existing news businesses. It should work together more to share risk and results – what will work for one may well work for another.
“Start charging for some online content – and hold your nerve. Ditch fancy website names and use your brands – their value is immense. And it may be the time to restrict mass free distribution of titles. Competition law does not allow rival titles to co-operate but with the cost of newsprint the move towards pick-up must be accelerated as well as the move back to some form of paywall.”