He went on to become the launch editor and then chief executive of the Birmingham Daily News, Britain’s first free morning newspaper.
From there he joined Northcliffe Newspapers as an editorial adviser as well as setting up a successful training consultancy based in Torquay which he continued to run until his retirement in 2012.
David, 68, has trained more than 8,000 journalists and managers in the UK and abroad and lives in Torquay with his wife, Valerie.
He has now penned his autobiography entitled ‘Death by a Thousand Clots!’ which interweaves his own personal story with his career in newspapers.
Here, in the first of two extracts, David, pictured below, argues that the failure of newspaper companies to find a way of monetising the internet while ‘neglecting’ print products will lead to the demise of many titles.
In tomorrow’s extract, he looks at how one daily newspaper proved quality journalism is alive and well in the regional press with its coverage of a major murder story on its patch.
It is easy to have rose-tinted glasses about the ‘good old days’, but I genuinely do believe I experienced the best years for the regional press. The golden years profit-wise were 1989 to 2005 when during this period Johnston Press became the first large newspaper company to achieve regular 30pc profit margins. Trinity Mirror emulated them so the Stock Market insisted others had to do the same. The fact this was unsustainable in the long term didn’t seem to bother too many managements awarding themselves fat bonuses or, in the case of one company, subsidizing their failing American newspapers.
The big question today is whether print really is dead? The move to put everything on the web has not yet succeeded from a commercial viewpoint. Whether regional newspaper groups can make it work is something only time will tell. For the sake of thousands of good people whose jobs are at stake, I hope they can.
I have no argument with their moves to make the most of new technology, to offer local news on different platforms and engage with a wider readership, but the way they have neglected their print products will prove to be short sighted unless they quickly find the key to earning enough advertising revenue from their web operations. So far nobody has come up with the ‘big’ answer that will unlock what some believe is untold wealth – whoever does will earn a fortune in consultancy fees.
Long term it would have been far more sensible if they had invested in both the web and their print products, but in recent years long term planning for the newspaper side of their operations has not been high on the agenda of most managements more concerned with the next set of trading figures than those five years hence. How long regional newspaper companies can maintain their 20pc plus profit margins if web revenues do not improve dramatically remains to be seen, because, whether they like to admit it or not, they have helped accelerate the decline of their newspapers.
Of course, changing lifestyles have played a part in circulation declines. People don’t have the same affinity with the place where they choose to live after they move from where they were brought up. Once they migrate from their home town links to the area where they went to school, played football etc. break down. Their desire for strictly local news in their new home area is often very limited unless something directly affects them such as their dustbins not being emptied or poor schooling. Little or no research was done on changing demographics or to find out what these people wanted from a local newspaper.
The warning signs were there in the early part of this millennium, but managements either failed to recognize them or were too complacent to do anything about them. Long gone are the days when all local newspapers were at the heart of their communities, employing hundreds of local people as journalists, receptionists, sales reps, circulation managers, printers of all shapes and sizes and administrative staff. A few privately owned newspaper groups in Kent and Cumbria still do, but the majority have lost the reader loyalty they used to enjoy from employing locals.
Most regional newspapers are printed many miles away in an alien town, while their accounts are centralized elsewhere and even their switchboard can be operated by another company in another town. Adverts are made up in India or Eastern Europe. What is left at a purely local level is a small team of journalists and advertising reps.
Talented and committed journalists are still labouring away on their beloved papers for relatively small wages, but with fewer reporters to fill more pages, upload a set number of stories every hour to the net, produce some local video footage and keep their Twitter connections happy it is no wonder that they are often forced back on dull, easy news. Readers are not fooled. They vote with their feet!
During the 1990s and the early part of this century owning a local newspaper was a near licence to print money. Of course it couldn’t last. When the inevitable recession came along in 2008 weak, over-paid managements reacted in the only way they knew by slashing costs in order to try and keep profit margins as high as possible for as long as possible. Nobody doubted that some costs had to be slashed given the national economic situation, but the end result was too many newspapers were left with fewer badly trained staff who offered little or no customer service.
For a short time there was talk of returning local newspapers to local control where profit margins of around 10pc would be good enough. That may yet happen, but so far there is no sign the large groups are willing to sell to local entrepreneurs. There have been few successful new set-ups but nothing like the free newspaper explosion of the 1980s. Purely local blogs and web sites have come and gone – few have made any money.
The real danger for democracy is that many towns will be left with no local newspaper of any note covering their councils or courts. I have always believed one of the key roles local newspapers have fulfilled over many years is they have kept an eye on our elected representatives and been present in our courts to see that justice is done. The signs are already there that all but a few of today’s regional newspaper managements either do not understand this role or don’t care, even in the towns and cities served by long established titles.
In a few years’ time when the only source of local news might be the internet I doubt whether it will offer the same news coverage. Local democracy is certain to suffer. Outside London most, but not all, councils are still held to account by a local paper, but how long can that last? When a hard pressed news editor has to choose between sending his one available reporter to a four hour meeting or keeping him/her in the office to cut and paste a dozen press releases there will only be one outcome.
So what, say the experts? That is the future. That’s all well and good, but if all people will be offered by way of local news coverage is a diet of light, entertainment-based items and sanitised press releases, then society will be the worse for it. Whether the public will be prepared to sit twiddling their thumbs through a 30 second advertising video while waiting to click on to the news item they really want to see on their screen remains to be seen. What they won’t find is their neighbour who has appeared in court that week or the actions and decisions of local councillors being scrutinised.
Local newspapers have been consistently starved of investment by the new breed of owners who took over in the 1990s. So long as the advertisers kept on coming back and the money still came rolling in they were happy to demand higher and higher profit margins. When things got tougher and real management was needed, they had no answers.
One of the biggest mistakes many of them made – and still do – was their decision to put all the news from their titles on the web without charging for it. They would not listen when they were told this could be suicidal. Why should anyone buy their weekly paper on a Thursday or Friday when they can get enough of it free on an on-going daily basis? We now have a generation that was given free news and won’t pay for it. The hope was that advertising revenues would follow. They haven’t. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors when companies report their revenues from digital – most talk in percentages; a 5pc increase is not much if you are basing it on £10.
At the same time the role of editor has been diminished. Today’s regional editors spend more time in management, marketing and other meetings than they do dictating the news agenda. Some of them have had to become experts in organizing and hosting sponsored awards evenings for the tourism, food and other industries in order to replace falling circulation revenues. And if an editor dares challenge what is being said they are quickly shown the door and replaced by someone called a cheaper content editor who reports to a group editor looking after anything up to seven titles. It remains to be seen as to who goes to prison if the paper upsets a judge!
- Death by a Thousand Clots can be purchased on Kindle, priced £3.95, or as a paperback at £8.99.