Over the next fortnight, HoldtheFrontPage will be serialising ten of the chapters in a new book looking in detail at the regional press industry and its future prospects.
The second edition of What Do We Mean By Local?, subtitled The Rise, Fall – and Possible Rise Again – of Local Journalism, will be published on 1 September, following on from the first edition published last year.
Editors John Mair, Richard Keeble and Neil Fowler have kindly made available ten of the chapters for publication on HTFP over the next two weeks.
In today’s opening extract, former Newsquest editor Anthony Longden, left, provides a critical overview of the recent history of the industry and argues that the launch of free newspapers was a pivotal moment in the context of its current difficulties.
I grew up in Uxbridge, a market town on the western edge of Greater London, in what used to be Middlesex. In the early years of the 20th century, it was dominated by King & Hutchings Ltd, a long established newspaper printing and publishing business. It was typical of many such newspapers surrounding London, and it is where I took my first steps towards becoming a journalist – badgering the editor of the Middlesex Advertiser & Gazette for a spell of work experience in 1980. I went on to witness – and then helped manage – many and various attempts to keep London local papers alive.
From our austere early 21st century viewpoint, the sheer scale of that old Uxbridge operation almost beggars belief. By the time I turned up, King & Hutchings occupied a sizeable chunk of the town centre, and had been taken over by Westminster Press. It was now known as Middlesex County Press. There were several buildings – a large printworks; Press House, editorial home to a daily and two weeklies; the advertising department on the other side of the road, and photographic was next door.
The place teemed with life. Lorries laden with newsprint or the finished product, vans and cars streamed in and out at all times of the day and night. The newsroom clattered with typewriters and shook when the presses were run up as final deadline loomed. It all spoke to me of excitement and glamour, of prosperity, relevance, dynamism and power. I wanted a part of it.
All that Glisters is not Gold
By the 1980s, King & Hutchings employed hundreds of people. It had its roots in the mid-19th century newspaper boom, and simply got bigger and bigger. At the start of the decade, staff were producing the Middlesex Advertiser & Gazette, the Hillingdon Mirror, both weeklies, and the Evening Mail, and worked on various contract and small printing jobs. This is the same story as other newspaper companies at all points of the compass around London, all with long histories and august titles – the Hendon Times group; the East London Guardian; Oxley & Son (Windsor) Ltd, which established the Windsor, Slough & Eton Express in 1812, spring to mind.
All began as small family concerns, grew, and were then serially swallowed up by the new breed of big publishing company able to turn a profit by use of the economies of scale and modern technological and management practices. Despite years of nay-sayers’ warnings about television and radio spelling doom for print, in the early 1980s there was still a voracious appetite for local newspapers. The local press was still a strong vehicle for advertisers, whose loyalty was retained with the arrival of free titles.
But, if we did but know it, the see-saw was already beginning to tip, and some well-known and popular titles would not make it into the brave new world. The Evening Mail was one. It launched in Slough in 1969, and later had a base in Uxbridge for an ill-starred expansion into west London. Despite a valiant effort, it failed to compete with the strong local weeklies and the might of the London Evening News and Evening Standard, and by May 1982 it had closed.
Next to go was the Hillingdon Mirror, another product of the 1960s. This was designed as a lighter alternative to the Middlesex Advertiser & Gazette, and made highly effective use of front page colour. It began life as a broadsheet, but later went tabloid. The era of free newspapers was about to begin. Seduced by the potential of a mass distribution free vehicle for advertising, King & Hutchings/Westminster Press took the plunge, closing the Mirror and launching the Leader in its stead. The business case was compelling – advertisers liked the enormous reach of free distribution, although many were keen to keep a foot in both the paid-for and free camps. The marketing looked good, too. Paid-for circulations were by today’s standards in rude health, but quoting free print run figures looked even more impressive. Publishers realised they could launch frees against paid-for competitors that had previously enjoyed a monopoly in a given area.
The new strategy of putting tanks on other people’s lawns led to the concept of the ‘defensive free’ – running it alongside an established paid-for to cover the entire market, and protect it from attack. But it also started the internecine rate wars that sent whole advertising markets racing to the bottom as the protagonists, locked in a deadly embrace, endlessly undercut each other. Much later – far too late – publishers realised they had educated their customers to expect to get local advertising dirt cheap, an unsustainable position that permanently ruled out any prospect of a return to profitable rates.
Clouds on the Horizon
The changes at King & Hutchings in the early 1980s left Uxbridge with the Middlesex Advertiser & Gazette and the free Leader. These soon came under attack from United Newspapers’ Informer title, and later another, much smaller, operation, the Recorder.
Westminster Press sold out to an ambitious newly-formed company called Southnews Plc in 1986, run by entrepreneur Gareth Clark. Clark and his senior management team wasted no time in streamlining the business. The print works was closed, and the King & Hutchings buildings sold to developers.
Southnews was a success story. In addition to the Uxbridge titles, it had the Ealing Gazette Series, the Harrow Observer and the Buckinghamshire Advertiser. The Leader brand was developed across the area, and there was investment in staff and that buzz phrase of the time: ‘new technology’. More titles were acquired as the company grew steadily, eventually swallowing up its competitors. By 1991, the first clouds had appeared on the horizon. Gareth Clark wrote to staff on January 31, in a way so wearily familiar to us now, but was completely new then:
I am writing to let you know how the accelerating recession is affecting us and how our current assumptions will determine our 1991 policies. The economy has been in serious decline for some time, particularly since October 1990. The effects were first felt by our weaker titles in Sussex and North London. These divisions traded at losses and redundancy programmes were actioned in November/December to ensure their survival. I regret that those redundancies were declared but on the other hand I am pleased to report that recent results look as though the future is assured for these newspapers. Turning to Middlesex County Press: as many of us know, the economic strength of paid-for newspapers is recruitment advertising. The decline of these revenues since October ’90 has been unprecedented. For example, in January 1991, a typical recent month, recruitment sales were 53 per cent below last year (in turn 20 per cent below the previous year). Such significant losses have a profound financial effect. On the other hand we have made good gains in other categories of business, we have reduced office costs by decentralising and we have reduced prices paid for contract printing. These benefits fail, by a large margin, to compensate for the huge loss of recruitment advertising. Our guiding assumption for 1991 is that jobs advertising will remain severely depressed. We base this on published employment statistics, increased rate of decline of industrial output and the recent sharp drop of notified vacancies in the London region. If this assumption is correct we must take action now to protect the security of the majority of the company.
He went on to outline three action points: 16 redundancies; a pay freeze; and, with admirable transparency, the introduction of a weekly sales report to all staff so that they could monitor progress. He concluded:
In summary, the decline in jobs advertising is severely affecting the revenue base of the company and urgent actions are necessary. I am full of praise for the very real gains that have been achieved in our publishing centres and am sorry to report those gains have been overtaken by market decline.’
By May 1991 things had stabilised slightly, but Clark had further cause to write to staff, telling them the results for 1990 showed a loss of £987,000 which ‘…represents a severe blow to the finances of the company and explains the need for tight control on both running costs and capital expenditure’.
The fortunes of the London papers were dictated by high yielding jobs advertising. Southnews suffered a fall in jobs advertising of £2.6m which wiped out the company’s £2.1m operating profit for the previous year. This was my first experience of being forced to slash costs and reorganise accordingly. In those days it worked.
We are currently trading off diminished revenues but with a significantly lower cost base. As a result the company is no longer trading at a loss and we can focus on returning the company to acceptable levels of profitability … I believe that the company is in good shape to stand up to the most intense competitive pressures.
Things did get better for Southnews. After 15 years of expansion it sold to Trinity Mirror for £284.6m in October 2000.
The London Effect
London has always been a place of change, and in the last 50 years the impact of social fragmentation and increased cultural diversity have been among the biggest. Communities whose second language was English steadily grew, and the appeal of what were essentially white, middle class local newspapers dwindled in direct proportion.
What hope then for the traditional Victorian newspaper model? Not much. Some titles made embarrassing attempts to tailor content to minority communities, not realising that their efforts were invisible, irrelevant and mostly patronising to the very people they thought they wanted to attract. What was the point of scratching together a Bollywood page, merely to maroon it in an otherwise traditional, ‘white’ newspaper? Local titles struggled to reflect the diversity of their communities both in editorial content and in workforce.
Add to this changing nature of communities, and the very idea of ‘community’, the revolution in reader habits, tastes, and content delivery methods, and you have the still-shifting landscape in which we now find ourselves. London is where it is in its sharpest relief, but the pattern is universal.
A Question of Attitude
The launch of free newspapers was a pivotal moment. It was the very first glimmer of perhaps the heaviest millstone now slung around our necks – creating the self-destructive illusion that news is a free commodity. What started as a clever wheeze for the industry, was to poison the future in a way we could never have imagined – within 25 years giving truth to the lie that online journalism can be consumed free of charge.
The birth of frees also brought out the worst in a lot of journalists, especially those in managerial positions. I can well remember being told not to waste time on particular stories. ‘Oh, we’re just going to bung that in the free…’ At news conferences the free was invariably dismissed as something to get out of the way as soon as possible. I know, because, to my own shame, I was guilty of seeing it that way, too. The free was not loved, and its role was never understood by those writing for it.
Wrong-headed thinking ruled the day; there was the prevailing misapprehension readers would draw the distinction between the established paid-for and the new free. They would, many journalists believed, still turn to the established paid-for for the stories that mattered. The reality was rather different. Readers developed their own set of perceptions, some fair, some not. The most damaging was the belief there was no point in paying for a local newspaper when you got another one free through your door every week.
The so-called strategy of reserving ‘proper stories’ for the paid-fors simply failed to acknowledge the power of the something-for-nothing culture that had taken hold. As an editor, I lost count of the times people told me they were absolutely convinced exactly the same news went into both the paid and the free, when there was, in fact, very little overlap. They were cancelling their order for the paid-for, they would tell me. Why buy it when we get a paper free through the door? Eventually, they rang or wrote in demanding that the free wasn’t delivered to them either.
With new technology it was becoming easier to produce something that looked like a newspaper, but with increasingly squeezed resources it was becoming more difficult to provide the breadth and depth required to keep readers interested. The growing acceptance that handy savings could be achieved by reducing the number of journalists is a process that continues today.
It also contributed to the ‘democratic deficit’. I wince when I hear people waxing lyrical on the vital role played by local papers in holding authority and powerful individuals to account. Perhaps they used to, I like to think they did. But they have shrunk to such an extent many can no longer hope to perform that essential journalistic function to any valid extent. Until the early 1990s, there were enough reporters to attend courts and council meetings. This could be worthy, often dull, but it was proper public scrutiny just the same. With very few noble exceptions, this scrutiny of public bodies at a local level is not happening now.
Editorial v Sales Departments
Journalists have traditionally held a negative attitude towards the commercial side of the business – it is a badge of integrity. The roots of this go deep. Right back to those legendary days of ‘Editorial is King’. Journalists have always viewed sales staff with disdain. This is to some degree understandable – they are chalk and cheese. Editorial independence does not sit easily with the work of selling advertising to businesses that could become the focus of news stories from time to time. There is a natural tension between the two roles and insufficient understanding of their occasionally competing agendas can be disastrous.
Attempts to manipulate editorial on behalf of advertising customers should never go down well with journalists, but that has never justified the kind of battles I frequently had to sort out when I was an editor. This deep-seated inter-departmental discord had another deeply unhelpful effect. Many managing directors and publishers who had invariably come up through sales, had little sympathy with what they saw as haughty editorial departments. This attitude often led to poor, almost spiteful decision-making, frequently to the detriment of what is at the heart of the business – strong local journalism.
An Aside: The Peculiar Demise of the Sub Editor
One of the most bizarre things to have happened in this long period of decline is how such a pivotal newsroom role as that of the sub editor could have collapsed so completely. Early computer software made the practical side of the job so much easier; no more casting off, word counting, font charts, em rules, pencil marks and carbons. Page design was quicker and easier.
However, QuarkXpress and its successors are tools like any other. You cannot hand someone a saw and call them a carpenter but, in effect, that was what happened – the emphasis was now merely on pulling copy into boxes. Anyone can do that, can’t they? Traditionally, sub editors had been hugely experienced, and generally quite terrifying journalists. They were the scourge of poorly written copy (and those who produced it). They could spot and remedy legal risks. They worked at a ferocious pace, and they had been rigorously trained as young reporters. They were also a bit older, and there was the rub: many found the transition from paper to computer just too much, and chose to bow out. Almost imperceptibly, sub editing became a secondary activity.
By the late 1990s, I was becoming aware of subs excusing mistakes with: ‘We were so busy, we just didn’t have time to read the copy.’ If subs don’t read the copy, then they might as well be replaced by page designers. In essence, that was the beginning of the end. A creeping default approach of ‘just bung everything in and get the page away’ emerged. Years later, it was frequently at the root of the many cases I saw while I was a Press Complaints Commissioner. Copy editing is an endangered art. We urgently need to get it back, whatever platform we happen to be using.
The benefit of hindsight can be that the experiences of the past point clearly to what ought to have been done. That is not the case when it comes to the future of journalism in general, and local news provision in particular. The degree of change has been fast, dramatic, widespread and, in its earlier stages, it was completely unpredictable. As this book and its predecessor illustrate, we have now got used to living with the problem and some very creative approaches are being applied.
Funding of journalism remains the Holy Grail. Some media companies will survive. Some will not. Some will change out of all recognition. This current turmoil is all about platforms – the most effective delivery of the news we have always been writing. The car needs a new engine. That’s all.
Once we’ve figured out how to pay the bill, the journey can continue.
Note on the author
Anthony Longden has been a journalist for 30 years, 20 of them spent as an editor and senior editorial executive for various newspaper companies including Newsquest (Managing Editor, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, North and East London 2005-2012), Trinity Mirror (Senior Editor-in-Chief, Berkshire, North and West London; editor Reading Chronicle Series 2002-2005) and Southnews (Editor, Middlesex Chronicle 1992-1994; Editor, Uxbridge Gazette Series 1994-2002). He has been a member of the Society of Editors’ Parliamentary and Legal Committee since 1999, and helped to draft several of the society’s modules of evidence for the Leveson Inquiry. He completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission in September 2012, and sat on its reform sub-committee. Now a consultant, his clients include the SoE, and the PCC during its transition phase.
- WHAT DO WE MEAN BY LOCAL? THE RISE,FALL AND RISE AGAIN OF LOCAL JOURNALISM. EDITED BY JOHN MAIR,RICHARD LANCE KEEBLE WITH NEIL FOWLER. PUBLISHED BY ABRAMIS BURY ST EDMUNDS SEPTEMBER IST 2013 ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0 PRICE £19.95 WITH A SPECIAL OFFER TO YOUR READERS OF £15.00 from firstname.lastname@example.org