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Dyson at Large: A few questions for Chris Oakley

Chris Oakley’s speech in Manchester yesterday and his chapter in the recently published What Do We Mean By Local? give a fascinating insight into the state of the industry.

I was working as a reporter and then news editor at the Birmingham Post and Mail from the early 1990s during Chris’ buy-out, floatation and merger with Mirror Group, and it was truly an exciting time for a young journalist.

But however much I want to remember the glitz of those days, the awe-inspiring presentations to staff on the 14th floor and the 200 shares they gave each of us upon becoming a plc, as a journalist I’m sure Chris would respect that there are questions that I’d now like to ask.

1. Why speak out today, Chris? Don’t get me wrong – this is great stuff, and so much I agree on, not least your views on former evenings losing the plot by going overnight. But why now in 2012? What I mean to say is: why not then, back in 2009 in the Birmingham Mail’s case, when a debate of whether to go overnight or not was held? It would have been really valuable to have your views at that point. Or at any point during the industry’s hand-wringing on this and other issues you raise. Now provides good retrospective for ‘I told you so’ camps, but it would have been far more useful back when someone, somewhere might have listened.

2. What was all that stuff about alleged ‘systematic inflation of circulation’ in 1999? The then chief executive of Trinity Mirror, Philip Graf, made a statement to the Stock Exchange that circulation figures for the Birmingham Evening Mail, The Birmingham Post and the Sunday Mercury had been overstated for up to six years. This caused a huge problem in terms of revenue and confidence for the Birmingham titles, from which they arguably never recovered. Can you, Chris, who was in charge of the papers during the alleged period, shed any light on this now? (For anyone who cannot remember this story, take a look at and for a refresher).

3.  One last question is over that initial move to floatation. I know that what’s happened since is nothing to do with you – you’ve played no part in the recent savage cuts in the industry. But from your initial floatation of the Birmingham papers as MIN I presume you had knowledge of the world of public limited companies and the FTSE, where the interests of the shareholder always come first. Looking back, do you now regret taking the Birmingham Post and Mail into a scenario where increasing profits year-on-year was always going to be demanded?

I’d be really interested in any answers to the above, Chris.


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  • May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    You won’t get any answers Steve – this is purely a ‘too little, too late’ attempt at self publicity.
    It’s all too easy for people like Mr Oakley to sit back, light up a cigar with his feet on the desk and declare how it all should have been done.
    There are many people in the game we once loved who have done likewise…I remember well a very good friend of my dad’s, Roy Greenslade, almost vindicating Trinity Mirror as it pillaged the coffers of its Birmingham titles.
    He is a good guy who has shifted camps slightly and whose opinions I value, but the problem is that journalism is such a fickle business that politically it’s often wiser to keep schtum than speak out at the time.
    I fear Mr Oakley’s message is spot on, but there are far too many people like him ‘nest feathering’ at the expense of people who still genuinely care about regional daily newspapers and dedicate their life and soul to them.

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  • May 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Dear Steve,

    Obviously the Post & Mail didn’t teach you how to write concisely.

    However, the real question is why the industry continues to give away online content at the expence of paid-for circulation. As IBM and Microsoft told the Newpaper Society at least a decade ago that their business model would never make them any real money. As IBM proves every day, if people really want an online service, they will pay hansomely for it.

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  • May 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Do you mean ‘…at the expense…’, and ‘…handsomely…’, Mr Youett? 😉

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  • May 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Dear Chris,

    I’m sure Steve Dyson is more than capable of self-defence but I just HAD to say that your sniffy, pompous intro is hilariously undermined by your atrocious spelling.

    Just so you know.

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  • May 11, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    I’m all for being succinct but why is CY complaining about detailed questions that SD would like answering (and me too, now I’ve read them)?
    But CY makes a very important point about the lemming approach to websites and giving the product away free – without a hope in hell of making the kind of money needed out of online advertising.

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