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Dyson at Large: 9 reasons why the Birmingham Mail faces fight of its life

Saturday's Birmingham Mail front pageI’ve half-dreaded writing this blog since news broke that Trinity Mirror was removing yet more journalists from the Birmingham Mail and its sister Midland titles.

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:

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.

9/ Demographics:

  • 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.

23 comments

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  • June 17, 2015 at 10:15 am
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    Well there you have it! You can’t really argue with the above points, although I would also add the competition of the Wolverhampton-based Express and Star which, until recently, still printed the same day, had a lower cover price, and much later deadlines so it also got more ‘breaking news stories’ in.
    I’m glad you got your ‘defence’ in first Steve (ie that the circulation continued to fall under your editorship – as with everyone that came before and since). But the bottom line is that annual double digit percentage falls in circulation (when people have been predicting/hoping for years that it couldn’t possibly fall any lower) can only mean that the Mail will end up weekly or totally online.
    Unfortunately the current and former owners have been applying a one-trick approach for years, which is to respond to falls in circulation with cuts in jobs and investment, which inevitably adds to the spiral of falling sales and so on……Very sad but unfortunately it seems to be the way of the industry and the world.

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  • June 17, 2015 at 10:15 am
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    Mirror Group merged with Trinity in 1999, and the resulting Trinity Mirror relentlessly pursued 30pc-plus profit margins, especially under Sly Bailey’s tenure.

    Above all things this is the reason for the decline of local papers,
    That and the dogged determination to maintain dividend payouts

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  • June 17, 2015 at 11:07 am
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    This is spot-on; I can’t argue with any of the analysis and you have to credit Steve with admitting that he presided over part of the decline when he was editor. I always wonder what would have happened if Steve Brown hadn’t ‘left’

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  • June 17, 2015 at 11:25 am
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    You could add another point: Moving the offices away from the city centre to a ludicrously swanky – and expensive – base at the barren wasteland of Fort Dunlop.

    That the move occurred at the same time as introducing a new computer system that encouraged remote working (therefore allowing for a smaller HQ) made it all the more insane.

    It wasn’t fit for purpose within a month or so of moving in!

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  • June 17, 2015 at 12:37 pm
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    Trinity Mirror’s attitude towards the Post & Mail group (sorry, BPM) aside,, the population of inner Birmingham is more diverse than ever now. Don’t think the Mail recognises that which means most sales are in the suburbs of the city. It’s shocking what’s happening here

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  • June 17, 2015 at 12:55 pm
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    “Will the latest redundancies leave enough staff to produce editorial quality that means anything to local people”

    That’s a question that could have been (and has been) asked after every single round of job slashing at Trinity Mirror.
    And the answer is the same every time.

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  • June 17, 2015 at 1:04 pm
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    Re the Metro launch and subsequent spoiler battle you say: “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.”
    Don’t you mean four? If I’m not mistaken the Birmingham Post was still a daily then.

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  • June 17, 2015 at 1:25 pm
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    You’re right, of course, ‘J Dale’. I think I meant so-called ‘mass circulation’, but yes, the Birmingham Post was the 4th of FOUR dailies during the Metro launch/spoiler period. ‘Former Post and Mail hack’ also makes a good point about the Express and Star, with which the Mail had quite serious circulation battles in the 80s and 90s. At one stage, this saw the Express and Star open an editorial office on Birmingham’s Broad Street (headed by Paul Fulford – now on the Mail!). That was there until the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the Mail once had at least four district offices in the Black Country (Sandwell, Walsall, Dudley, Stourbridge) as well as others in Solihull, Sutton Coldfield, Tamworth, Redditch and Bromsgrove. Those mentioned were all there in the mid 1990s. Now there are none.

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  • June 17, 2015 at 3:46 pm
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    I have worked in journalism for 30 years and nothing saddens me more than the decline of the Mail. Walking in the print room at Colmore Row with my grandfather, who was a printer on the P&M, fired my enthusiasm for newspapers and journalism. Good on Steve for admitting his part in the Mail’s steady decline and his excellent appraisal of how things have got progressively worse. In 10 years, maybe less, I will be surprised if there are more than a handful of regional titles in the UK still in print. The future of the Mail is online, in which case perhaps Trinity Mirror might consider making their web pages a bit more user friendly. After clicking the x box in the top corner on the second or third pop up ad I tend to give up reading the story.

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  • June 17, 2015 at 5:37 pm
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    Whenever I talk to colleagues, old and new, about the decline and eventual demise of print journalism – sadly the “best example” of today’s sad statistics is the Birmingham Mail. As the paper’s youngest reporter in the early 1970s I was around for the birth of the multi-edition paper as a tabloid under the charismatic David Hopkinson. Figures quoted then were 368,000 a day compared with 27,000 today. The latest circulation/distribution figure is a national disgrace and when Trinity Mirror try to ‘see off’ seasoned pros of the calibre of Jon Griffin, is it any wonder the company is leading the Mail to an inevitable early print grave? Regional daily papers, like dinosaurs, will soon be extinct, although never forgotten. Neither will the Mail’s epitaph: KILLED BY ITS OWN HAND.

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  • June 17, 2015 at 5:57 pm
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    Aside from the usual digital banter, point four is the biggest reason for the decline of all titles. Some city/regional dailies and most weeklies have the potential to survive a lot longer if smaller profit margins are accepted. Sadly, that’s not going to happen!

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  • June 17, 2015 at 6:14 pm
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    Interesting piece, Steve. Mind you, Mail front pages like the one at the top of your blog won’t have helped – what a mess.

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  • June 17, 2015 at 6:33 pm
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    A very informative analysis..I wish one could be done on the JP group.

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  • June 18, 2015 at 10:47 am
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    A very good analysis – the constellation of factors behind Brum decline much more complex than most. I personally think the corporate upheaval, crazy competitive cannibalism & demographic changes were the key constituents of Birmingham’s perfect storm.

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  • June 18, 2015 at 12:56 pm
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    It should also, in addition to the abve valid points, be recognised that throughout England (and Wales) local media, whether newspapers radio stations, or ITV, have found local news and content ever more impossible to fund, and in all cases, mergers, etc., have seen national media take over. No one seemsto have found a way to row against that tide, however wel or badly they have been run. We are now a largely national market in all cases.

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  • June 18, 2015 at 1:23 pm
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    This is a good explanation by Mr Dyson.
    It is a shame he is not so understanding and looks at the staffing, financial and other constraints when he is making observations on other papers.

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  • June 18, 2015 at 1:54 pm
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    We stopped buying Birmingham Mail many years back, as it lost the feel of being a local paper, with real local news.

    Even checking online today, it just does not feel like a local paper, just feels like a rag with some regional bias.

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  • June 18, 2015 at 6:19 pm
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    Well observed by Steve, but as with all editors and journalists he misses a key point. The advertising driven purchase of papers that was significant, never interested in the editorial, and gone to the web.
    Also Steve should not be so self critical re the 2005 re launch. He inherited a fait accompli with a flawed edition structure and design driven by outsiders who did not understand the area.
    I would use the term ethno-demographics to more accurately explain why the decline is, sadly, terminal.

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  • June 18, 2015 at 8:21 pm
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    Punter makes a good point there. That redesign by the Liverpool Echo team who the editorial director hailed as some sort of design wizards was possibly the biggest regional newspaper disasters in the history of our industry.

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  • June 21, 2015 at 7:53 am
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    Why they should have used a Liverpool Echo team to redesign the Mail, amazes me. A redesign is not a magic wand. People buy papers to read stories that interest them. The Echo has been on an editorial downward spiral for years, converting every story into a sort of chirpy Scouser tale, complete with a worn-out picture composition. It lost credibility as a serious paper years ago when it began to publish press releases almost without subbing. Story headlines read like stale 1950s Christmas cracker jokes. Many regional dailies lost the reason for their existence when management decided that detailed court stories about your neighbours were no longer news. Instead, the space should be “filled up” with women’s, entertainment, style, fashion and health “lifestyle” sections with a local twist to attract advertisers. It’s saddening that the once mighty Birmingham Mail, highly respected for its news handling and coverage, should have fallen into the clutches of the suits at Trinity Mirror.

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  • June 23, 2015 at 1:41 pm
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    A fascinating analysis with many points that would hold true for other TM titles. Mind you, it is not only the people of the Midlands who would think that getting rid of Steve Brown was a mind-bogglingly daft decision even by the high standards of stupidity of TM. There again he did make the fatal mistakes of treating people as humans and thinking for himself…..

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  • June 26, 2015 at 11:05 am
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    I had two stints as a reporter/feature writer at the Mail in the Sixties and Seventies and remember being told by one editorial exec that the Mail was the Birmingham Bible. Not any more and how sad it all is. I’m reminded of a quote by the late great James Cameron on ( I think) the death of the News Chronicle who said the reason for the paper’s closure was that its circulation was impeded by clots. The newspaper game isn’t the trade it once was -in UK and Oz – and that’s sad. Running a small farm seems a much better proposition – less money maybe but much more fun.

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