21 December 2014

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Dyson at Large: Why weeklies are beating big city dailies

Once upon a time, the editors of most regional and local daily newspapers felt ever-so-slightly superior to their weekly cousins.

Nothing malicious, not even too snobbish – it was just that in pre-internet days, urban dwellers turned to their daily papers in droves to pick up on big, breaking news.

For years these daily titles did fairly well at fending off the likes of local radio, regional TV bulletins and the explosion of satellite TV news.

They continued to do this in the early internet days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when booming advertising revenues and profits meant they still had enough staff to cover cities thoroughly, and when on-day print times meant live stories sold evening papers the same afternoon they happened.

How times have changed. In the last five years, for all the reasons we hear about in big publishers’ annual reports, most dailies’ staffs have been, at best, halved, and the vast majority of former evening titles have also lost the most unique selling proposition they had – breaking news – by going overnight.

I now know of very few daily editors, and even fewer former daily editors, who wouldn’t be tempted to take the chair at one of Britain’s stronger weekly titles. And I’d include myself in that number.

Because nearly all ‘evening’ dailies have lost the vitality created by live news, with fast-shrinking readerships only too aware that they’ve watched, listened or read on the website most stories that can be found 24 hours later in the paper.

Whereas big weeklies, often in smaller towns or rural areas not covered very well by radio, TV or the internet, are still turned to by their readers as the only place to read all about the big story of the week.

This paradox came to mind when I was in Hereford on Thursday 12 April and witnessed copies of that week’s Hereford Times flying off the shelves.

‘Man’s skull is fractured after pub row’ was the definite reason behind many purchases, a topic I heard locals discussing with each other and/or the newsagent six days after the incident.

It was a typically ‘good’ (as in newsworthy) hard story – a big fight in a renowned pub turns really nasty with a local man’s head smashed in, the kind of town occurrence that everyone gets to hear snippets about on the grapevine and knows will be covered properly in the weekly paper.

Even now, a month later, on internet searches of the pub (The Golden Fleece) and the victim’s name (Stephen Lysicia), I can find no mention of the incident anywhere apart from in the Hereford Times, which was also the only media that covered the resulting suspension of the pub’s licence and follow-up condition reports on the victim (still ‘critically ill’).

What I am trying to say is that today, the very biggest stories in larger towns and cities are instantly covered by radio, TV and online media before they’re in the daily paper, while in smaller towns and rural areas such events are often not covered by anyone other than weekly newspapers.

And for that reason, the owners of weekly titles – both the independents and especially the big publishers – should jealously guard this news monopoly they continue to have in print, in what is supposed to be the online world of 2012.

Yes, for all those hacks out there who want to carve out and ply their careers on good, old-fashioned, printed newspapers chasing hard news, corruption and vice, it’s still there to be had – but it’s on weeklies, not dailies, and it’s in towns and rural areas, not larger urban areas and cities.

(Before the brickbats come in, I’m not suggesting dailies can’t offer interesting jobs, by the way, it’s just the jobs are nothing like what they used to be, whereas on weeklies they arguably still are.)

Hats off to Hereford Times editor Fiona Phillips and her team for their healthy story counts: in a 160-page paper there were 190+ tales on 49 news and features pages, another 50+ reports on 10 sports pages and a 44-page Property Times.

The Times, owned by Newsquest, still sells 32,654 copies a week at 80p a time according to the latest ABCs, which is some revenue generator when added to the 100-odd pages of adverts in each edition.

Sure, these copy sales have declined during the recession, but only by -5.9pc, -3.9pc and -2.3pc in the last three ABCs, comparatively robust figures that most daily editors would give their right arms for.

11 Comments

  1. Cherrywonder

    Personally, I like the look of the Hereford Times’ front page.
    Strong local splash, nice pix.
    But it is an unusual look.
    For some years now there has been a move away from having text-heavy stories on the front page of local and regional papers.
    The prevailing wisdom seems to be three- or four-par turn splashes with end-of-the-world point size headlines followed by a handful of write-offs – which are believed to be “entry points” – in the hope they will drive readers to have a look inside the paper.
    I’d be very interested to read Steve’s opinion on this.

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  2. Steve Dyson

    For what it’s worth, Cherrywonder, I think the Hereford Times’ approach is good – eight pars of the splash on page one, with the story continuing on page two. I dislike write-off splashes, unless for special circumstances, like a wipe-out, poster pic page one.

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  3. Cherrywonder

    Yeah I reckon you’re right.
    I remember being at a training course run by some Trinity Mirror “guru” (since “let go” ahem) a few years back who was trying to drum into us the absolute need for a minimum of six “entry points” on the front.
    I thought he was talking rubbish then and I still do now.
    Most times, anyway.

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  4. Curious

    It’s a terrible headline. ‘Is fractured’ is an abomination.

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  5. Steve Dyson

    I see where you’re coming from, but think there’s nothing wrong with maximising entry points – ie: a column of nibs/x-refs can be good if they’re worth it and provide a summary of subject/geographical coverage. But not at the expense of a good p1 splash read. Arguably, on the Times’ splash above, you could have taken two cms of dad’s shoulder in the pic and lost another three to four cms from the right of the splash (where the barcode lies) and have introduced a column of nibs with no affect on the splash. That might have made the front even better.

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  6. JibberJabber

    Lower case ‘f” on the baby of the year plug is odd… and has the baby’s face been fuzzed????

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  7. Cherrywonder

    Having a flexible, changeable splash style is, I think, what most editors who’ve been around the block a few times would always want in order to grab their readers’ attention.
    Problem is, what editors want and what they’re expected to do these days are not by any means the same thing.
    Apart from all the templated pre-designed pages coming in now, there’s a lot newly-promoted “editors” who, for whatever reason, are too insecure to stamp their own style on their newspapers.
    This is not a good thing.

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  8. Steve Zacharanda

    Very interesting article Mr Dyson.
    Any job in journalism is a blessing these days as the local hack is becoming an endangered species.
    Thanks to the web those of us who have ended up on a weekly after the thrill/disappointment of working on dying dailies still get that feeling of breaking stories every day.
    And weeklies still make money which why the closure of the Sutton News and Chase Post amongst others was so sad in so many ways.
    The wages might not be any good at weeklies but by God it is where all the fun is!

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  9. Andy Skinner, Warwickshire

    Hi Steve, very interesting to see that the Stratford Herald sold out two weeks ago. Debate in newsroom on the splash, but younger element persuaded Editor to go with the fact that a hand controlled car had mounted the pavement in the town centre, mowed down six outside a coffee shop before going through the window of the clothes shop next door – it happened on Monday but was still the hot topic on Facebook and Twitter on Wed – with the younger element pointing out that readers were waiting for the Herald to come out with the “facts” on what had happened on Thursday (usual theories included a heart attack at the wheel etc, none of which was true.)

    A good weekly story is hard to beat

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  10. All Subbed Out

    I’ve seen the Hereford Times with an ‘inside this week’ nibs column on the front sometimes, but also seen the front design stymied by an additional paid advert where the promo strap is on this one. Not a very helpful decision by sales, I fear.

    As for the baby, looking more closely, isn’t it looking, chortling, towards the text on the left, under its hoodie?

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  11. Steve Dyson

    Ah, the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald – my ‘dish fit for the Gods’ of local newspapers. http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2011/news/a-dish-fit-for-the-gods/

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