2 September 2014

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Oakley: Time has run out for regional dailies

A former editor and newspaper owner has told a conference of industry leaders that ‘time has run out’ for regional daily papers.

Chris Oakley, who edited the Liverpool Echo before leading management buyouts of the Birmingham Post and Mail and then the Yorkshire Post, delivered a devastating verdict on the industry’s current plight at yesterday’s Society of Editors regional conference in Manchester.

He laid into the big regional publishers for racking up debts on acquisitions, saying the cost of Johnston Press’s current debt repayments were equivalent to that of employing 1,000 journalists.

And he said Sly Bailey’s successor as chief executive of Trinity Mirror would have no alternative but to continue cost-cutting because of the company’s own debt levels.

In a wide-ranging speech that took no prisoners, Chris also ridiculed JP chief executive Ashley Highfield’s objective of doubling the company’s 17pc profit margin by 2020 as “unachievable” – likening it in a slide presentation to Only Fools and Horses character Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter’s oft-repeated boast that “next year we’ll be millionaires.”

And he hit out at JP’s planned across-the-board increase in cover prices, saying the idea that this will not impact on sales would be “laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.”

But Chris reserved his gloomiest prognostications for regional daily newspapers, saying:  “Time has run out for big city dailies. The internet has hit regional daily newspapers particularly hard.”

The man who once edited three regional dailies and owned four others added: “I wouldn’t buy a big city daily even for a pound.”

Chris highlighted the move to overnight printing on most ‘evening’ titles as one of the causes of their decline, saying it had reduced their relevance to readers.

He also cited race and economic inequality as factors, adding:  “No daily newspaper can now meet the needs of all the people in multicultural Birmingham or economically-divided Leeds.”

Chris was speaking the day after Newspaper Society president Geraldine Allinson and entrepreneur Sir Ray Tindle declared their “total belief” in the future of regional papers.

Sir Ray’s Tindle Newspapers was the only group he singled out for praise, saying it had managed to remain debt free and claiming that all of its titles currently made a profit, although he acknowledged that its London titles were not doing so well as those which were “a long way away from the big cities.”

The Government also came in for strong criticism from Chris for its lack of response to the crisis facing the industry.

He hit out at culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s attempts to stimulate interest in local television saying it was a “failed experiment long ago.”

However Chris ended his speech on an optimistic note although he suggested the industry’s future lay outside of the big publishing groups.

“Do local newspapers have a future?  Emphatically yes, but not on the basis of the industry we now know.  It needs rebuilding from the bottom up,” he said.

The speech can be read in full here.

29 Comments

  1. Mr Cooley

    It amazes me why courses such as the NCTJ ‘promise’ a career in journalism. They should be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act. Thousands qualify each year….only to end up working in Tesco’s. Fools.

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  2. Paper watcher

    Ah yes, I do remember the days when Johnston’s were swallowing local papers like hot cakes. I even remember the Monopolies Commission being involved as they took so many!

    I never understood their greed at the time. None of the papers seemed to me to be partiuclarly different or valuable.

    If they increase cover prices customers will walk and they will be in an even worse mess. I give this new man twelve months!

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  3. House Rules

    They do a get a career though, just a short one. Every couple of years a company purges itself of seniors and replaces them with trainees on cheaper wages, they hang around become seniors, move on or are moved out, then the cycle starts again.

    Look at the jobs section on this website. A few years ago it was full of reporter posts. Now the majority of papers are replacing talented journos with trainees. That’s not something I have a problem with as such but you need a balance.

    I have recently moved jobs. In the news team when I was there were six reporters. Two senior, four trainees.

    My job was advertised for a trainee so now it will be one senior and five trainees.

    Report this comment

  4. John Dunne, Midlands

    Why does Northcliffe escape his wrath?

    Report this comment

  5. Spanner

    He may well be right, but its fine talk from a man who personally benefited by millions from the excessive multiples that Mirror and JP paid for the newspapers he sold them.

    Report this comment

  6. Ex-Courier journo

    Well speaking as a former reporter on The Courier out of Dundee, I think his claim should have a caveat that regional dailies are doomed ONLY when it applies to companies that have stretched themselves wafer thin etc. The Courier is still privately owned, had a healthy circulation last time I checked and its parent firm DC Thomson is making millions in proft. If it’s days are numbered, as Oakley claims, then it’s demise is still many years away.

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  7. ends

    These tirades always start with: “A former editor….”

    He may be right on structural problems at the top but as for “Time has run out for big city dailies”. Nonsense. Also deeply insulting to the hundreds of dedicated and skilled journalists out there trying extremely hard to produce excellent local newspapers in hard times.

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  8. regionalhack

    Good point Spanner, Oakley is a very wealthy man from his cut of JP’s Bowdler black hole of debt.
    Surely Oakley is very wrong about local papers needing rebuilding from the bottom up. It’s the unrealistically huge pay of the management running these companies that need sorting first. The journo’s are just getting on with the job, reporting news, the very basic foundations of local press, while also being expected to do even more multi media work, with fewer staff, and of course, for absolutely no extra money. Unlike those execs’

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  9. George Gray

    There is certainly plenty of irony that Chris did so well from those sales, Spanner, but you can hardly blame the man for accepting their offer price!

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  10. Planning my escape

    I was fortunate enough to work for RIM when Chris Oakley and Ernest Petrie ran the show following the management buy-out of UPN. Yes they were tough taskmasters but they always put resources behind initiatives, rewarded staff well and built a team of well-motivated people who were willing to go that extra mile. Motivation and staff morale quickly disappeared once Bowdler and Cammiade got their hands on the titles and it’s tragic to see these once prized publications now on life support.

    The analogy between Ashley Highfield and Del Boy Trotter is spot on.

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  11. Corporal Clegg

    At last a proper journalist speaks up for the industry!
    Loving the Del Boy Highfield angle!
    ;)

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  12. another old hack

    Well, well what a surprise! He hasn’t reinvented the wheel – just used his platform to say what us journalists at the bottom of pile have been saying for years.
    But of course we are just mere working hacks – what do we know about newspapers, readers etc? Let’s leave that to the highly paid executives, oh so qualified executives who know everything about what our audiences want and what makes them tick. I think not.

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  13. Fresh Coriander

    How glibly the first poster in this thread, Mr Cooley, dismisses the many hopeful young journalists out there with the casual and easy insult “fools”. He also manages to insult the many people, old and young, who earn a living, poorly paid but honest, at places like Tesco.
    Mr Cooley is typical of the on-line bully who tosses words like “idiot” and “fools” at other people he doesn’t even know – words that he would never say to their faces.
    To the many idealistic and hopeful young journalists going through the training system I say this: There will always be a need for thrusting, creative, powerful journalism. There will always be a need and a market for the interesting truth, as opposed to the PR and corporate lies and the online fluff. It’s just the way of delivery that will change. And another thing, young journo. You will need to be good. The industry cannot “hide” the average performer any more.
    Phew…I think I need to go and have a lie down now.

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  14. Observer

    “If it’s days are numbered, as Oakley claims, then it’s demise is still many years away.”

    With the grammar above I don’t doubt that you are an ex-Courier Journo

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  15. Lucy Lastik

    Stick a redundancy cheque in me pocket
    I’ll fetch the P45 from the van
    Cause if you wanted the best ‘uns
    But you asked too many questions
    Then you sure ain’t a JP man

    Where the fat cats’ cash comes from Is a mystery
    It’s from the pockets of the sales staff who’ve been chucked in the sea
    But here’s the one that’s driving me berserk
    Why do we mere minions do all the effing work?
    La la lala – la la la la la (etc)

    (With genuine apologies to the late John Sullivan)

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  16. Suedehead, Dublin

    I can honestly see a time when all regional newspapers go back to being owned by the local butcher, baker and candlestick-maker. Hopefully they’ll be a bit more caring towards their investments than these big groups have been.

    There’s no room for big PLCs in our industry as the whole aim of the investment markets is to make money from firms with accelerating growth and quick profits, eg in the high-tech and the commodities sectors.

    We’re a stable, middling industry and better off going back to our family-owned roots, perhaps championing local causes and issues instead of being part of the beige world of the Square Mile.

    Of course, it’s not a cure-all. And as for some of those family proprietors…

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  17. Duffo

    Ex Courier – Didn’t realise things were that good in the North. Can you tell me if your company hasn’t made people redundant, hasn’t shut print plants and is not seeing a circulation decline in some of their biggest newspapers? I suspect the answer is no.

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  18. Ex-Courier journo

    Observer – The message was typed rapidly while I was on a brief break. I know my grammar, and that it’s ‘its’ rather than ‘it’s', so there’s no need to be pedantic. However, I’m not going to faff about fine-checking a throwaway message on a web thread to the same level that I would if writing an article for publication. If you think I wouldn’t proof my own copy before submitting it for work, and that I wouldn’t pick up on simple grammatical slips like that when doing so, then you are very, very naive.

    Duffo – Yes, they’ve made people redundant etc, but they are in a far, far better position than many other corners of the press. Having spent most of my career on the east coast of Scotland – prior to heading south for my current job – I can safely say that things are in much better shape up there than at my current employer. They aren’t saddled with debts, own all of their assets (rather than sub-contracting or leasing equipment etc) and have a mighty-fine pool of reporters. That pool of reporters is also considerably larger than many other titles of a similar size and, although there have been cuts, if you check Hold the Front page often enough you will notice that DC is one of the few employers advertising on here on a semi-regular basis. That’s not the attitude of a firm looking to constantly trim back its editorial team. The same can’t be said for the likes of JP, Northcliffe and Trinity, can it?

    Report this comment

  19. Digger

    Would that Ex-Courier Journo were the only contributor with appalling standards of grammar. A fuller list from this series of messages alone includes the following: “…….If it’s days are numbered, as Oakley claims, then it’s demise is still many years away”; “……its fine talk from a man who personally benefited by millions”; “The journo’s are just getting on with the job”; “…used his platform to say what us journalists at the bottom of pile have been saying for years”, and I’m sure more will follow.
    It doesn’t matter how vehemently Ex-Courier Journo attempts to defend his slackness, the fact remains that standards are standards and must be maintained regardless of circumstances
    Contributors cite all manner of reasons why the public is disillusioned with newspapers. I suggest that bad grammar, poor spelling and lax punctuation all help to fuel the fire.

    Report this comment

  20. sceptictank

    regional dailies of all companies were doomed the day they stopped being evening papers. They lost their reason for existing; fast same day news instead of the stale stuff they offer now next morning. They are just glorified weeklies.
    Also they have been stripped of some experienced staff. Great shame.

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  21. Observer

    Dear Courier, It ain’t me wot’s chequing yer copy on a daily shedyule. However, let me commend you on a fine use of commas.

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  22. Curious

    I don’t begrudge Chris Oakley a penny from selling off his empire at the peak of its value. Who wouldn’t do the same, apart from Spanner?
    More importantly, he’s given both barrels to the dimwits who have taken their empires to the brink of extinction.
    These greedy and clueless buffoons have rewarded themselves obscenely for a decade of decline – with the fall not far off, according to Chris.
    They paid over the odds and saddled their companies with crippling debts. The staff have paid the penalty for their folly with wholesale slaughter in newsrooms across the land – plus, in Trinity-Mirror’s case, the axing of the final salary pension scheme.

    They couldn’t have done more damage if they tried

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  23. Danny

    Why did papers move to overnight printing? Because it’s cheaper. Why do they need to do things for less money? Because the desire for unrealistic profits is all consuming. Why does that desire exist? Because greedy senior managers in the 1990s hooked the city and stock market into owning newspaper groups. Who helped that process? A certain Chris Oakley, who got rich in the process and now has the nerve to lecture those of us still in the industry on how we’re getting things wrong. We’re working in the mess he helped create, and I find it amazing that HTFP and others haven’t challenged him on that point, and even more amazing that the Society of Editors is giving him a platform to act like the Grim Reaper blaming others for a full graveyard.

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  24. Danny Lockwood

    As someone who was in the audience yesterday, can I recommend people to read the entire speech, also on HTFP? Oakley’s comment about building the regional press from the ground up was expanded on in the Q&A. I didn’t think he was talking about these debt-laden dinosaurs reinventing themselves but a publishing landscape once they’ve been broken up (or collapsed into their own black hole of debt) and a new generation of entrepreneur-led newspapers. As one of Oakley’s former editors who ended up on pretty shitty terms with RIM (I launched against them – not Johnston Press) I’ve no reason to be be a fan. But it was pretty inspirational stuff. And I remember his call when RIM took us over, asking me for a plan to break up the central subbing unit at Leeds. That was the central unit the editors of the YP, YEP, Sheffield Star, Lancashire EP, Blackpool Gazette etc etc all thought was such a good idea. If Oakley came back into UK publishing it would be a great day (well, based on his track record, it would be a great day for him and Candover at least).

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  25. furryoldgreybadger

    Doomed, doomed, doomed…
    It’s over for the regional dailies, Chris will be proved right you see!
    Good weeklies will prosper.
    Let’s stop blaming senior management all of the time please, I was a senior circulation executive in the regional press for many years and I worked with some fine editors and some right tw..ts with massive egos and no ideas about what readers really wanted.
    Apologies for the typos, I am off out, in a bit of a rush

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  26. Ex-Courier journo

    Digger – Rather than ‘fuller’ wouldn’t you rather use ‘more complete’? People in glass houses.

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  27. sub-normal

    At least Del Boy had a plan and the vision to think as far ahead as next year.

    From what I’ve seen and heard, I’m convinced that Highfield is making it up as he goes along.

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  28. The barber of Seville

    In fairness, ‘Danny’, Htfp HAVE challenged Chris Oakley. See their front page and they now have another story containing a series of quite tough questions from their blogger Steve Dyson, who apparently worked under Oakley back in the 90s.

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  29. Digger

    Ex-Courier “Journo”: I don’t live in a glass house. “Fuller” is a perfectly appropriate word. I suggest you consult any reputable dictionary.
    Additionally,no journalist worth his (or her) salt would use two words where one suffices.

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