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Bath Chronicle conversion team prepares for series of challenges

News last week that the Bath Chronicle was to turn weekly was not a total surprise to the newspaper industry.

Rumour and speculation had been rife for years, and even before the editor Sam Holliday was appointed, there was talk that perhaps he would be the man to come in and do the conversion job.

The new Chronicle will appear at the end of September in a move the owners say will secure its future.

One of the smallest dailies in the UK is set to become a major 250-page weekly, according to Northcliffe’s publicity.

The staff will be smaller, and one important issue being tackled is the way forward for Chronicle employees, subjected this week to brickbats from readers of a national newspaper blog.

One of the challenges faced by the Bath team is working out exactly what the new paper will offer, because there is no real template as the switch has never been made before on this scale.

Kent evening newspaper Medway Today closed in 2003, turning bi-weekly, with no redundancies. The Kent Messenger Group’s evening daily was incorporated into a new heavyweight early-week edition of the Medway Messenger, up until then a weekly title published on a Friday.

In contrast, the Nuneaton Tribune – originally a monthly – changed from daily to weekly in 1992, reportedly with 90 redundancies.

Sam said: “My priority is with the staff. There are a lot of consultations, and they are my priority at present and I have an open mind on the way the new paper will be set up.”

He is particularly surprised at the venom directed at the newspaper – and the staff – in comments attached to the Guardian online’s blog reporting the Chronicle’s plans.

He said: “When people have been told their jobs are under threat the last thing they need is idiots putting the boot in. They were stupid comments and we’ve all got to rise above that. We have more important things to deal with.”

And the project moves forward. Away from closed-door one-to-one meetings with his staff, Sam already has some of his team for change in place.

Peter Sands, from The Editorial Centre, is advising with the redesign and other key aspects of the new paper.

He helped Sam change the Tamworth Herald into a completely new paper in March 2005, with root and branch transformation.

But come September 27, it is still unclear how much difference current Chronicle readers will see, or want to see, and if it will be the finished product.

“It’s an ongoing project – I’m not one of those people who will get something done and leave it even if it’s not quite right,” said the editor.

“Edition two must be better than edition one, and we’ll look at those to improve again for edition three, and so on after that.

“The important thing is to get the product absolutely right.

“As the media world changes we should be looking to change our product and with that make it bright and breezy.

“But we still want our readers to see that it is the Bath Chronicle, the paper they know and love and trust.”

The company is still cagey on what the circulation might be, with the current nightly figures being exactly half of what the editor’s former paper, the Tamworth Herald, sold in a week.

The Chronicle averages around 13,000 a day, with the best-selling day reaching some 15,000 copies.

There are people who only buy it on a Monday to read the sport, others who get it on Wednesdays for the jobs and others just see it on Fridays for its leisure content.

Sam said: “Putting everyone into one basket we’ll pick up readers from throughout the week.

“We will hopefully also pick up readers who have stopped reading us because of what is now known as ‘time poverty’, who will be able to find the time to read one definitive Bath newspaper on a weekly basis.”

Northcliffe Media knew their announcement would be controversial and that the paper could well be besieged by negative comment – but the feedback from readers has been answered by other readers (mostly online and via e-mail) and they seem to be resigned to losing their old friend… but getting a new one instead.

And there have also been supportive noises from within the industry, with many watching closely the fate of the Chronicle, in the same way that they kept an eye on the Manchester Evening News turning part-free.

Of course, what’s seems right for Bath may not work elsewhere, and if Bath was to fail, the bold move that it made could succeed elsewhere.

Either way, the country is watching. Do you have a story about the regional press?
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