If 2010 was the year in which the regional press industry witnessed a fragile recovery following the economic doom and gloom of the preceding two years, the bad news returned with a vengeance in 2011.
Inevitably, the past 12 months at national level will be remembered for the phone hacking scandal which destroyed the country’s biggest selling newspaper, and the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into press standards which it spawned.
But in the local press these issues were viewed as something of a distraction from the primary business of commercial survival – a view perhaps expressed most eloquently by former daily editor Neil Fowler in his Nuffield Lecture in November.
Not only has the industry had its own spate of newspaper closures to contend with, but the year has also been characterised by a series of daily-to-weekly changes and a succession of editors who decided their futures lay outside the increasingly troubled sector.
First to go in this veritable exodus of talent was John Furbisher of the Sheffield Star, who re-emerged shortly afterwards as the press officer for the Conservative group of MEPs.
His departure was followed over the course of the summer by five resignations in as many weeks, with such regional press luminaries as the Hull Daily Mail’s John Meehan and the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s Paul Robertson among those falling on their swords.
The autumn saw the highly-rated Keith Perch of the Leicester Mercury bowing out, while Newsquest waited until the week before the Christmas holidays before showing the Bournemouth Daily Echo’s award-winning Neal Butterworth the door.
And on the same day as Neal’s departure was announced to staff, the Exeter Express and Echo’s Marc Astley revealed he was quitting – but by then he was no longer a daily editor, his title having been taken weekly a few months before.
The series of frequency changes at Northcliffe Media titles followed the appointment of a hard-nosed new group managing director in the shape of Steve Auckland, who moved over from Metro bringing with him several members of his senior team.
Steve’s first acts were to announce a ‘portfolio review’ of all the group’s titles and to dismantle the group’s regional management structure – two decisions that set the tone for many of the changes that followed.
Significantly, the four daily titles in Torquay, Scunthorpe, Exeter and Lincoln that ultimately went weekly were not necessarily the ones with the smallest circulations, demonstrating that this exercise was essentially about profitability rather than sales.
But if the daily-to-weekly initiative showed some signs of success in terms of ad revenues, Northcliffe was frustrated in its desire to offload its Kent Regional News and Media titles to local rival the KM Group after an intervention by the Office of Fair Trading.
Northcliffe’s response was immediate, closing two of the seven KRNM titles and threatening to merge three of the others – bearing out previous warnings by media regulator Ofcom that papers could close unless the Kent deal went through.
And by then, other groups, too, had begun to close titles, axe staff and impose pay freezes as rising newsprint costs and the depressed state of the wider economy blew a chill autumn wind through the industry.
Trinity Mirror announced that the 156-year-old Liverpool Daily Post would move to weekly and embarked on a major restructure of its Midlands division which saw the closure of the Cannock Chase Post and two sister titles.
The axe fell a week after the Post’s much-loved editor Mike Lockley had celebrated 25 years in the chair, triggering an outpouring of affectionate tributes in the HTFP comments section.
Earlier the year saw one of the longest-running strikes by local journalists in recent times as staff at Johnston Press-owned South Yorkshire Newspapers walked out over editorial cutbacks.
The seven-week saga saw South Yorkshire Times editor Jim Oldfield made redundant after joining the stoppage and publicising it on his own front page, although he was quickly back in work as editor of dotcom start-up the Postcode Gazette.
Other long-running stories included the row over the allocation of press passes to local and regional newspapers for next year’s London 2012 Olympics with only a handful of regional titles having so far gained accreditation.
The issue remains unresolved although the Newspaper Society is hopeful of putting in place a press pool to serve the whole industry at the Games.
There were some bright spots. The Woking News & Mail, which had closed after GMG Regional Media failed to find a buyer, reappeared as a locally-owned monthly title in May before going fortnightly last month.
And Sir Ray Tindle continued doggedly with his strategy of launching new titles in the teeth of the downturn, with the Chingford Times and Chepstow Review among the additions to his ever-growing stable.
But the lasting impression of the year was of an industry assailed by the twin threats of statutory media regulation on the one hand and a flatlining economy on the other.
With neither of those threats about to be lifted in a hurry, few expect 2012 to bring about any sudden change in the industry’s fortunes.
Bowing out: The regional daily editors who stood down in 2011
Marc Astley (Exeter Express and Echo) also quit but by this time his paper was a weekly.
…And those newspapers which bade farewell
Driffield Times and Driffield Post (Johnston Press) merged into Driffield Post and Times
Bootle Times, Maghull and Aintree Star and Anfield and West Derby Star (Trinity Mirror) merged to become The Star