Because there’s no pleasure in raking over the understandably sensitive and angry coals of staff either facing redundancy, or being told their newspaper’s traditional role is over and that personal digital improvement targets will be set.
Thankfully, there’s no need for me to debate or dwell on the current scenario, because it’s already been well-aired on HoldtheFrontPage, while The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade has also opined on the issue.
Instead, I’m going to attempt to explain what caused the Mail’s deep decline from one of the country’s largest regionals, reputedly selling 304,000 copies a day in 1984 (according to David Scott’s recent book), to a circulation of barely 27,000 today.
But first, a full disclosure: I was the Mail’s editor from mid-2005 to the end of 2009 and, despite a number of initiatives, its long-term circulation decline continued in that period; I accept some of the responsibility for that.
Now here are nine wider, historical reasons why I think the Birmingham Mail may become either a weekly or online-only product by 2020.
1/ The UK’s first free daily:
- In 1984, Chris Bullivant and Reed Regional Newspapers launched the free Daily News in Birmingham, distributed to 300,000 homes four days a week.
- This free pioneer only survived seven years, but it’s often forgotten that the Mail’s sales dropped by a third in that period.
2/ To the USA and back, MBO, flotation and merger mayhem:
- In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Mail’s publishing company was pin-balled around various ownership structures, all cutting costs and distracting attentions from the day job.
- First it was sold by the Iliffe family to USA-based Ralph Ingersoll; then Chris Oakley’s management buy-out created Midland Independent Newspapers; that MBO team made their millions by floating MIN on the stock market; and the new plc was soon ‘merged’ with Mirror Group.
3/ Two more free dailies:
- In the mid-1990s, as Northcliffe prepared to launch a daily free Metro newspaper in Birmingham, the Mail launched its own as a defensive strategy.
- For a short period, this meant the city had three daily papers – two of them free – which hit Mail sales (and editorial focus) hard again.
- Like many publishers, Trinity Mirror eventually became part of the Metro’s ownership structure, and today the freebie is still picked up by bus and train commuters across Birmingham.
4/ Trinity Mirror profit margins:
- Mirror Group merged with Trinity in 1999, and the resulting Trinity Mirror relentlessly pursued 30pc-plus profit margins, especially under Sly Bailey’s tenure.
- This saw all the group’s titles submitted to almost annual cost-cutting programmes which often began with ‘the 10pc challenge’, (eg, ‘you can always find 10pc savings’).
5/ Failed relaunches:
- The Birmingham Mail was ‘relaunched’ in 2001 and again in 2005 (the latter under my editorship) in much-lauded ‘£1m investments’.
- Neither succeeded in turning long-term trends around, partly because Trinity Mirror reversed many planned investments within six months – new pages cut back, reopened district offices closed again and extra geographical editions axed.
6/ A year in the wilderness:
- In 2006, Trinity Mirror suddenly decided to sell off the Birmingham Mail and its other Midland titles, excluding them from technical upgrades and ordering a freeze on any developments for a ‘tendering’ period of nearly one year.
- This ended in October 2007 with no sale and the departure of the Midland division’s then bosses after they had led a failed management buy-out bid.
7/ Cyclical and structural changes:
- A new, widely-respected managing director called Steve Brown was then appointed, who many staff felt understood the Midland titles’ histories and could lead them to better times.
- But his arrival soon coincided with the 2008 banking crisis and, from then on, a lethal mixture of the recession and the online revolution meant advertising revenues and newspaper sales dropped significantly for all UK print titles.
- This led to what became an unstoppable spiral of even more redundancy programmes in Birmingham. As editor, I part-led one of them before departing in the next one while Steve B also left in a separate restructure.
8/ Going overnight:
- In 2010, along with most ‘evenings’ across the country, Trinity Mirror made the Birmingham Mail ‘go overnight’.
- This meant staff had to put the latest stories from a busy city ‘to bed’ the previous evening, removing the title’s unique selling point of live news.
- More than any big city outside of London, Birmingham’s population has changed dramatically in the last 35 years.
- Nearly half the city’s dwellers are now what might be described as a ‘first-generation Birmingham Mail target audience’ – there’s no local family history of buying the paper, and most therefore don’t.
Some of the above ‘events’ (numbers 3, 4, 7 and 8) were faced in various ways across the UK, but the rest were specific to Birmingham and damaged the Mail faster than other regional dailies.
Today, Trinity Mirror is not tackling a one-off ‘balancing the books’ challenge in the Midlands; it’s arguably strangling titles that have already had the lifeblood of editorial resources and morale repeatedly squeezed out of them for 30 years.
Three big questions: Will the latest redundancies leave enough staff to produce editorial quality that means anything to local people? Can Trinity Mirror ever create online revenues at the sustainable levels rapidly disappearing from print? How long before the Mail is weekly or online-only?
Marc Reeves, who left the business with me in 2009, is now back as Midlands’ editor-in-chief, and I really hope he leads and wins the Birmingham Mail’s battle for survival – although the above-mentioned Guardian media expert has already predicted its extinction in print.