AddThis SmartLayers

Review of 2009: Down, but not out

In the long and proud history of the UK regional press, there can be no doubt that 2009 will go down as one of the sector’s most difficult and traumatic years.

The impact of the recession combined with the continuing flight of advertising revenues to the internet created a ‘perfect storm’ which sent regional newspapers’ profit margins plummeting.

Hardly a week went by in the first half of the year without a fresh announcement of significant job losses, and in some cases, newspaper closures, as publishers desperately fought to keep their businesses afloat.

Yet the industry refused to lie down and die, and dark predictions of the demise of half the country’s 1,300 local and regional titles thus far seem well wide of the mark.

The big newspaper companies found different ways of tackling the downturn. For both Northcliffe Media and Johnston Press, centralised subbing hubs seemed to be the favoured method of cutting costs.

The early months of the year saw hubs introduced at Northcliffe’s titles in Staffordshire, Nottingham, Hull, Chelmsford, Bristol and Swansea, with more than 150 jobs lost overall.

Meanwhile JP created new hubs in Sunderland, Lancashire, Peterborough, Northampton and Milton Keynes, although the latter three may now be further rationalised into one.

MEN Media, publishers of the Manchester Evening News, went further, getting rid of all its weekly satellite offices and centralising all the remaining staff – subs and reporters – on a single site.

Trinity Mirror’s cost-cutting model seemed to rely more on closing some of the smaller titles on the fringes of its regional operations in order to protect its core businesses.

Among the Trinity-owned titles that bade farewell in 2009 were the Neath and Port Talbot Guardians, and a group of weeklies in the area north of Birmingham.

It also announced the closure of the Whitchurch Herald in the Welsh Borders, but this small paid-for weekly was saved when it was bought up by NWN Media, publishers of the neighbouring Leader titles.

Some saw this kind of localised ownership as a more promising model for the industry than the much-rumoured consolidation of the ‘big four’ groups into a ‘big two,’ an idea which seemed to exist more in the minds of city analysts and business journalists than in those of the newspaper executives themselves.

Another oft-heard prediction which proved unfounded was that of ‘frequency changes’ – industry jargon for daily titles going weekly.

In the event, only one daily title, the Birmingham Post, went down this route, although the Reading Evening Post announced it was going twice-weekly.

Against the difficult commercial backdrop, it was hardly surprising that debate at industry gatherings tended to revolve around the search for a new business model.

Some, no doubt taking their cue from Rupert Murdoch, saw the future in online paywalls, with Johnston Press launching a small pilot project along these lines in November.

Others, though, saw the idea of ‘publicly funded news’ as the way ahead, especially after the Digital Britain report opened up the prospect of local newspaper companies not only running regional TV stations but receiving a slice of the BBC’s licence fee for doing so.

Already, regional publishers are gearing up for a fight to run the three pilot projects in Scotland, Wales and the North-East in what looks set to be one of the big running stories of 2010.

In Whitehall, Andy Burnham was replaced as culture secretary by former local press reporter Ben Bradshaw who swiftly faced demands to do more to help the sector – for instance by curbing the activities of council newspapers.

With an election in the offing, and with no significant recovery for the industry yet in sight, those demands are only likely to intensify over the next 12 months.

  • Tomorrow, we look at the main comings and goings in the industry during 2009 – a year which saw several big name editors moving on to pastures new.