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Review of 2013: Audiences grow but sales decline continues

If one indication of the health of an industry is the number of jobs advertised on its premier trade website, then there was nothing much wrong with the regional press in 2013.

Contrary to the oft-talked about decline, the number of vacancies posted on HoldtheFrontPage rose from 666 in 2012 to more than 750 over the last 12 months.

But if that statistic provided something of a corrective to the prophecies of doom, the circulation figures were less encouraging.

The August figures covering the first half of the year saw sales down across the board at England’s regional dailies, with the Paisley Daily Express the only UK daily to post an increase.

It did not necessarily mean the audience for local and regional news was declining.  Most publishers reported increases in their website traffic that more than cancelled out the lost print readership.

But the Holy Grail of how to monetise those growing digital audiences remained elusive.

Robin Burgess, chairman of the Carlisle-based CN Group seemed to be grasping the nettle with a startling intervention at the Society of Editors regional conference, saying that ultimately the reader must pay.

But perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the mixed results experienced by national newspaper publishers, neither he nor any other regional publisher was bold enough to experiment with paywalls in the course of 2013.

In terms of the big groups, there was change in the air with the formation of Local World as a result of the merger of the former Iliffe and Northcliffe newspaper groups.

The group set up a ‘transformation room’ to drive its transition from print to multimedia, a future in which user-generated content looks set to play a big part, and sub-editors possibly less of one.

There were similar changes in train at Johnston Press, with one of its titles, Bourne Local, relaunched with the explicit aim of getting 75pc of its content from users.

Debt-reduction remained a priority at JP with the group auctioning off a number of current and former newspaper offices, introducing a voluntary redundancy scheme for staff, and axeing staff photographers in some parts of the business.

Commercial considerations aside, the main challenges facing the industry over the past 12 months have been political, with the ongoing wrangle over how the media should be regulated.

When a group of politicians cooked up a deal at 2am in the presence of lobbying group Hacked Off, the reaction from newspapers was predictably dismissive.

The government pressed ahead with its plans for a new state-sponsored regulator overseen by Royal Charter, but the industry stayed aloof and set up its own independent regulator, Ipso.

But with Section 10 of the Crime and Courts Act allowing to judges to award libel costs against papers who stay outside the regulatory system even if they win their case, it is hard to argue that statutory regulation has not already arrived.

A recurring theme in the latter half of the year was the imposition of bans on local and regional newspapers by football clubs protesting at stories they did not like.

Newcastle United set the ball rolling by barring reporters from Trinity Mirror’s Chronicle and Journal titles and floated the idea that national newspapers might have to pay to interview players.

Other bans were inflicted on the Rotherham Advertiser and Stoke Sentinel, though the latter was swiftly lifted.

It led a group of MPs to sponsor a commons motion calling new guidelines on how clubs interact with the local media.

Despite signs of recovery, the year ended on a somewhat downbeat note with significant numbers of job losses at Newsquest as a result of plans to move production of its Yorkshire and North-East titles to Newport, South Wales, and the closure of the Liverpool Post after 158 years.

The paper had gone from daily-to-weekly in 2011 in an attempt to reinvent itself but sales continued to plummet and stood at 5,727 at the time of the last full set of ABC figures in February.

One of the political themes of the year has been that the economic recovery trumpeted by ministers has yet to feed through into the lives of ordinary people outside London and the South East.

Many journalists could be forgiven for thinking the same might be true of our own industry.

2 comments

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  • December 24, 2013 at 11:09 am
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    More jobs advertised on your excellent site but could this be because more good journalists were made redundant to be replaced by cheaper comparative novices.

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  • January 6, 2014 at 2:45 pm
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    Regarding your comment that “neither he nor any other regional publisher was bold enough to experiment with paywalls in the course of 2013.” You failed to mention that Herald & Times Group in Scotland have been running a metered paywall on ‘heraldscotland.com’ since December 2011.

    It may also be interesting to note that the rate of subscriber growth has increased in the last few months as we reduced the amount of ‘free’ articles users can view each month before paying. We promise to update in more detail shortly.

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