Once upon a time, the editors of most regional and local daily newspapers felt ever-so-slightly superior to their weekly cousins.
Nothing malicious, not even too snobbish – it was just that in pre-internet days, urban dwellers turned to their daily papers in droves to pick up on big, breaking news.
For years these daily titles did fairly well at fending off the likes of local radio, regional TV bulletins and the explosion of satellite TV news.
They continued to do this in the early internet days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when booming advertising revenues and profits meant they still had enough staff to cover cities thoroughly, and when on-day print times meant live stories sold evening papers the same afternoon they happened.
How times have changed. In the last five years, for all the reasons we hear about in big publishers’ annual reports, most dailies’ staffs have been, at best, halved, and the vast majority of former evening titles have also lost the most unique selling proposition they had – breaking news – by going overnight.
I now know of very few daily editors, and even fewer former daily editors, who wouldn’t be tempted to take the chair at one of Britain’s stronger weekly titles. And I’d include myself in that number.
Because nearly all ‘evening’ dailies have lost the vitality created by live news, with fast-shrinking readerships only too aware that they’ve watched, listened or read on the website most stories that can be found 24 hours later in the paper.
Whereas big weeklies, often in smaller towns or rural areas not covered very well by radio, TV or the internet, are still turned to by their readers as the only place to read all about the big story of the week.
This paradox came to mind when I was in Hereford on Thursday 12 April and witnessed copies of that week’s Hereford Times flying off the shelves.
‘Man’s skull is fractured after pub row’ was the definite reason behind many purchases, a topic I heard locals discussing with each other and/or the newsagent six days after the incident.
It was a typically ‘good’ (as in newsworthy) hard story – a big fight in a renowned pub turns really nasty with a local man’s head smashed in, the kind of town occurrence that everyone gets to hear snippets about on the grapevine and knows will be covered properly in the weekly paper.
Even now, a month later, on internet searches of the pub (The Golden Fleece) and the victim’s name (Stephen Lysicia), I can find no mention of the incident anywhere apart from in the Hereford Times, which was also the only media that covered the resulting suspension of the pub’s licence and follow-up condition reports on the victim (still ‘critically ill’).
What I am trying to say is that today, the very biggest stories in larger towns and cities are instantly covered by radio, TV and online media before they’re in the daily paper, while in smaller towns and rural areas such events are often not covered by anyone other than weekly newspapers.
And for that reason, the owners of weekly titles – both the independents and especially the big publishers – should jealously guard this news monopoly they continue to have in print, in what is supposed to be the online world of 2012.
Yes, for all those hacks out there who want to carve out and ply their careers on good, old-fashioned, printed newspapers chasing hard news, corruption and vice, it’s still there to be had – but it’s on weeklies, not dailies, and it’s in towns and rural areas, not larger urban areas and cities.
(Before the brickbats come in, I’m not suggesting dailies can’t offer interesting jobs, by the way, it’s just the jobs are nothing like what they used to be, whereas on weeklies they arguably still are.)
Hats off to Hereford Times editor Fiona Phillips and her team for their healthy story counts: in a 160-page paper there were 190+ tales on 49 news and features pages, another 50+ reports on 10 sports pages and a 44-page Property Times.
The Times, owned by Newsquest, still sells 32,654 copies a week at 80p a time according to the latest ABCs, which is some revenue generator when added to the 100-odd pages of adverts in each edition.
Sure, these copy sales have declined during the recession, but only by -5.9pc, -3.9pc and -2.3pc in the last three ABCs, comparatively robust figures that most daily editors would give their right arms for.