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Dyson at Large: Digital war looms for UK cities

I bet there were a few frowns in various boardrooms at the ‘million unique users’ Trinity Mirror claims to have grabbed with its new Belfast Live website.

Here’s one of the UK’s big publishers, with no regional print titles anywhere in Ireland, suddenly taking a chunk of online attention with the cheeky claim of being the ‘one-stop shop for all things Belfast’.

I can almost hear those indigenous voices over at Independent News and Media, publishers of the Belfast Telegraph, and the Northern Media Group, publishers of The Irish News: “What the hell are they doing over here?”

Bosses must also be a little peeved at Johnston Press, publisher of the Belfast News Letter, given that the newcomer’s online efforts are potentially encroaching on its revenues.

belfast live 1

This is a really different approach by Trinity Mirror: setting up a digital-only news operation where it has no print presence.

(Yes, Get Reading is similar, but remember that’s where Trinity Mirror closed newspapers like the Reading Post and its sister weeklies first, whereas it had no regional newspapers in Belfast.)

As always, critics are questioning whether online revenues are substantial enough to make the new Belfast operation pay for serious journalism and still make profits.

The big difference to the usual debate here is that there are no huge staffing operation, expensive print products, physical distribution or other legacy costs to pay for.

If Belfast Live works, then the finance margins could be high: online revenue, minus four or five staff members and a small office rent, equals profit.

If it fails, the fall-out is minimal: just a handful of staff to lose or move elsewhere, and a short-term lease to surrender; nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But there’s a much, much bigger issue at stake: if this digital foray works in Belfast, where might Trinity Mirror digitally invade next?

Leeds, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Norwich, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dublin – and those are just the first eight cities off the top of my head where Trinity Mirror has no regional print presence (note I’ve excluded cities with Local World products, as Trinity Mirror’s shareholding might preclude competition).

And in what could then quickly become a tit-for-tat reaction across the industry, where might Johnston Press, Newsquest, Archant and others consider for their own digital-only launches?

Possibly Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Newcastle, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Huddersfield – and those are just the eight major bases for Trinity Mirror dailies, where the other big publishers currently have no newspapers.

If this happens – and if Belfast Live is in any way successful why wouldn’t it happen? – the old arguments about monopolies law preventing expansion are turned inside out.

Instead you’ll have urban areas that were once regional strongholds for Johnston Press, Newsquest, Trinity Mirror, Archant and Local World potentially becoming highly competitive marketplaces.

And then anyone with decent editorial and sales skills, plus a minor investment, will be able to set up shop to grab readers’ eyes and revenues away from traditional brands.

Part of me dreads the result: the native newspaper groups in those areas losing more profitability and therefore making more cuts, an ever-decreasing vortex of resource, quality, readership, revenues and profits disappearing down the plughole.

But another part of me suspects that this competition could be healthy, and that the possible winners of such digital battles might be the general public.

Because only the best quality content would win their attention – leading to more hits, larger numbers of unique users, increased online revenues and bigger profits.

In some cities, the in situ publisher might up their investment in editorial quality to remain the number one publisher; but if the invader’s quality is higher, they survive and media choice improves.

Who’d have thought it? Publishers expanding, increasing their investments in editorial quality, and battling for online audiences and revenues in the UK’s major cities.

None of this might happen, of course – but it will be worth watching progress in Belfast, as that could become the trigger for a regional media digital war.


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  • August 26, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Not usually fond of the middle ground, but it also might be that a digital arriviste sounded the death knell for the existing multi-media title. If someone landed in B’ham (say), with a purely digital offering, its parent company would throw enough resources at the market to win at least some advertising, and reduce the hits/unique users achieved by the Post/Mail. Assuming TM’s response was its traditional ‘cut-cut-more cuts’ approach, but that the newcomer then walked away, you’d have an enfeebled TM operation, so less choice for readers and advertisers … and the TM dole queue would have stretched a little further too.

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  • August 26, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Hats off to the word ‘enfeebled’. Huge respect.

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  • August 26, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Not entirely virgin territory.

    Trinity Mirror already had an office in Belfast, producing the Northern Irish Daily Mirror, which does not have its own website.

    It also has big offices in Glasgow (Daily Record) and Dublin (Irish Mirror).

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  • September 4, 2015 at 9:00 am

    Yep, as Paul states, one of the central ‘facts’ of this article is incorrect. Trinity Mirror has had a production centre and newsroom in Belfastbfor around 20 years, with local editors, reporters, picture desk, page designers and around 12 subs.
    The Northern Ireland edition of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and People are tinkered with there, and also the Irish editions of those papers. Oh and local sales and Marketing staff. I’d guess a total of around 40 employees.
    Some of the reporters names appearing in Belfast Live are reporters from the regional editions of the national papers, such as Morris Fitzmorris.
    Bit of research (even just a google) would have uncovered this link before long, but hey who has time for research anymore.

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  • September 4, 2015 at 10:28 am

    I see the point ‘Paul’ and ‘James’ are making: Trinity Mirror’s active in Belfast with its national Daily Mirror title.

    What I’m saying is that Belfast is virgin territory in terms of regional print presence, and by that I mean local/regional newspapers like the Belfast Telegrah, not a regionalised edition of the Daily Mirror, which exists all over the UK.

    But perhaps the distinction between regional and national is getting blurry at Trinity Mirror. In any case, Belfast Live is a new entrant in the city, competing online versus other regional newspaper websites – Bel Tel, News Letter, Irish News, etc.

    What’s interesting about the point ‘Paul’ and ‘James’ make is that it’s prompted me to imagine Trinity Mirror’s next steps. If Belfast Live is successful, the next roll-outs will be in other cities where Trinity Mirror has Daily Mirror offices – eg, Dublin and Glasgow. And again, any such expansion/invasion will be competing with regional newspaper titles in those cities.

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  • September 4, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for response Steve.
    Yes, I think the line between regional and national has been very blurred in the Irish markets for a long time now, with all the big publishers following similar models of ‘regionalising’ their UK national titles. INM are another good example. Typically the NI titles get some regional content, and the Republic editions are almost completed changed apart from some sport and celeb coverage.
    So far from Belfast Live being launched into ‘virgin territory’ (apologies for that!) it appears to me that Belfast Live is more a branding and marketing move, sharing staff, offices, phone lines and presumably stories with the TM paper titles. Basically, it’s the NI Daily Mirror website under a different name. Nothing wrong with that, probably a smarter way to do it, but it’s certainly not as bold a move as your article suggests. Maybe view it as more a case of NIDM finally launching a site, but using fresh branding.
    Here’s some links to illustrate the connections:
    I guess the really interesting question is, does Belfast Live make money? If so, is it enough to continue with? If not, how long will TM give it before folding. If you had some insight into that, that would be interesting. Same questions for the other local titles such as Belfast tele, Newsletter and Irish News (which is currently playing with its payment model).
    Anyway, sincere good luck to them all, they will need it on current projections.

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