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.
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.”
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.