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Journalism Review of 2015: And then were three….


Trinity Mirror boss Simon Fox, who pulled off the year’s biggest media deal with the purchase of Local Word.

There are broadly speaking two views about the future of the regional press, both of which have been well-represented in the comments section of HoldtheFrontPage over recent years.

According to one school of thought – espoused by the National Union of Journalists among others – the future is hyperlocal, with hundreds of small publishers running predominantly online operations and happy to exist on similarly small profit margins.

There may well be money to be made that way by tapping into local advertising markets, but whether it will ever generate enough cash to pay for local news journalism in the traditional sense of the term is very much open to question.

The prevailing industry view remains that consolidation is the way ahead – the creation of ever-larger publishing units capable of achieving both a critical mass of national advertising reach, coupled with the economies of scale required to keep back-office costs to a minimum.

And so it was in 2015 that the ‘big four’ became a big three, with the year’s biggest industry story seeing Trinity Mirror swallow up Local World to become the UK’s largest regional newspaper publisher.

The £220m deal saw DMGT finally exiting the regional newspaper sector, three years after it sold Northcliffe Media to the LW consortium, in which it remained the biggest shareholder.

Once the process of integration is complete, the upshot will be an enlarged Trinity Mirror which will have a print or online presence in almost all of the UK’s major cities.

And some suspect it won’t stop there, with analysts forecasting a tie-up between Newsquest and Johnston Press to create a ‘big two’ as the next logical move in a process that has been ongoing since the mid-1990s.

Be that as it may, Newsquest certainly demonstrated it has the appetite to expand its UK media empire during 2015, with the £15.2m acquisition of the Dunfermline-based Romanes Media Group.

The purchase led to the loss of a number of editorial roles at Romanes’ Scottish and Berkshire operations, but that was just the tip of the iceberg in a year of cost-cutting that saw deputy editors and staff photographers joining sub-editors on the list of journalistic endangered species.

Johnston Press rolled out a ‘Newsroom of the Future’ initative which reduced the number of individual editors and introduced many more shared teams of journalists working across multiple titles.

Newsquest moved in a similar direction, with group editors such as Tim Jones in North London and Ian Murray in Hampshire given responsibility for large numbers of titles across ever-wider geographical patches.

Across the industry, much energy continued to be focused on building digital audiences, with Trinity Mirror in the vanguard with its plans for individual traffic targets for journalists.

But while most publishers reported strong online audience growth and increased digital income, the point at which these outweighed the decline in print revenues – the fabled ‘digital tipping point’ – remained elusive.

The changes in the industry also played into the debate about the future of journalism training, with the National Council for the Training of Journalists publishing proposals designed to facilitate a wider variety of routes into the industry.

The plans, which would see shorthand remaining compulsory only for those intending to follow a ‘news journalism’ career path, have already provoked much impassioned debate over what it actually means to be journalist.

The year’s end saw James Mitchinson crown his meteoric career rise with the editorship of The Yorkshire Post as Jeremy Clifford headed to a group-wide role, and Nicola Furbisher become the first dedicated editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post since 2012.

But inevitably 2015 also saw a number of high-profile departures from the industry, among them Simon O’Neill who left the Oxford Mail shortly after devoting 25 pages of his paper to the ongoing battle to preserve the Freedom of Information Act.

Also bowing out were Mark Thomas at the North Wales Daily Post, Rankin Armstrong at the Belfast Newsletter, Jon Rhodes at the Blackpool Gazette and Kevin Young at the Lancashire Telegraph, which is still without an editor or deputy.

The jibe ‘too many chiefs…’ may still sometimes be heard in newsrooms up and down the land, but in truth, few in the industry are now immune from the currents of the river of constant change.


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  • December 24, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Just a quick point before I succumb to too much festive grub and booze. Online revenues are of course increasing but a lot of the cash entered in the Digital column in the accounts is lolly shuffled over from print deals. Online local news, as you say, may support small, bespoke hyperlocal outfits, but the bloated corporations would not last a month on purely online income. Perhaps local ventures could become hived-off franchisees of the big boys, drawing infrastructure, HR and admin support from them, paying a percentage of the booty for this support and keeping the rest. Anyway, that’s it from me for 2015, have a merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone.

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  • December 24, 2015 at 10:00 am

    A thoughtful piece on the state of the industry as we head towards 2016.
    And can I thank HTFP for providing over the past 12 months, excellent un-biased and invaluable coverage of all the issues and being a platform for anyone who cares about this crazy business. Long may it continue.

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  • December 24, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Hear hear. Paul and the HTFP team do a great job.

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  • December 24, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    The news breaks here old snooze paper never has anyone to give out bad news,,just relies on the NUJ and HTFP.

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  • December 24, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Well done HTFP for presenting a wide range of views. My prediction. Papers will make a comeback with proper editors and local reporters who know what and where they are talking about. Group editors ( ie remote controllers) will become extinct. But it will take 10 years and likely to be smaller independent outfits. Don’t forget you read it here first folks. Now for another drop of Xmas punch.
    Merry Xmas all

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  • December 24, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Have to agree with the others, HTFP provides a valuable forum for so many varied views on our industry. The comments are a bonus – even if you don’t agree with all of them! Keep up the good work, it’s appreciated by many.

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  • December 24, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    All publishers need to go to their local reference library and study newspapers published circa 1900 – the standard of reporting, and writing, is generally outstanding, far superior in terms of detail and turn of phrase than the formulaic fodder dished up today. Only those newspapers which turn back the clock to this community approach will they have a chance of surviving the next five years. Papers that continue to churn out pap and council press releases are doomed to fail very quickly!

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  • December 24, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    I’m lucky enough to have worked for the best part of 30 years in various positions and at all levels in our industry, and have seen everyone from Maxwell to Shah to Montgomery to Bailey chase markets they thought were ‘the future’. And along the way I have seen newspapers lose sight of what they do, and who they do it for, in a vain attempt to surf a wave that has already passed them by. Online news is not the same as a newspaper. It’s like the board of Coca Cola, in the eighties, seeing a growing market in bottled water and, rather than start a water bottling plant, deciding to water down the Coke. Local newspapers are pretty simple things. They are like bicycles, films in the cinema, books. Sure, there are other ways to get around, netflix, kindle, but there will always be a solid market for a well crafted traditional product. Only most of us have stopped making those and have twisted ourselves into knots trying to turn our bicycle into a Ferrari. There is a future for local, independent-minded newspapers that tell their readers the things they need to know. But it won’t deliver ever-growing dividends for foreign shareholders and it won’t compete with Facebook, Google, Amazon or even, bless ’em, the BBC.

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  • December 25, 2015 at 10:23 am

    I agree with you ex paper hack. The greedy corporations have damaged the caring local press. But it isn’t terminal. People with a committed local ethos will emerge after the ‘big ones’ enter administration, brought on by their own blinkered avarice (as in the banks). Principled locally-owned newspapers will triumph, with knowledgeable, talented reporters at the helm.

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  • December 27, 2015 at 11:58 am

    Many thanks to Hold the Front Page for delivering much needed news about the industry and giving so many of us a chance to air our views, especially a good moan.
    One comment I would also like to make is how much papers rely on the goodwill of our readers.
    Recent years has seen too much costcutting, which has led to a lack of good will from once loyal readers.
    I have worked for both Local World and Johnston Press in the past couple of years and the contasts are remarkable.
    Though the Local World daily was poorly resourced, there was still enough staff to put out a decent paper, at least until the takeover.
    With the readers still reasonably well-served, the support and goodwill was there to help the surviving journalists dig out the news.
    Now, back in Yorkshire, I see a poor JP weekly dominated by content from a larger sister.
    People are unwilling to supply it with news as the paper does such a poor job covering events in the prosperous market town.
    Yesterday saw severe and unprecedented floods in my village and though the JP weekly has put a few pictures on the website showing flooded rivers in certain towns, there is nothing on my flooded village.
    Perhaps the paper does not know and perhaps my neighbours did not tell them. Perhaps the goodwill is no longer there.
    I did not bother to tell the paper either as when I emailed and offered my services as a freelancer, I did not even get a reply.
    A few days ago, I spoke to an old colleague, who still works for JP, who told me that since Newsroom of the Future, he has no time to go to all of his council meetings.
    Those parishes ten or so miles away from his office have never seen him for months and the villagers there are upset at the lack of coverage they now get. There was no budget for pics of nativity plays either. Lots of people will no doubt be upset and many will be looking to cancel their papers as my parents are after buying the JP weekly for 40-odd years because as they say “there’s now’t in it.”
    JP is losing readers in droves as the quality of their papers plummets. Their websites lose them too due to declining content from the fewer surviving staff. The papers suffer doubly from lack of goodwill from their readers, with them not supplying the UGC JP seeks as its papers now deliver such a poor service.
    Sadly, with the Trinity Mirror takeover, if the cuts at Local World continue, it’s currently reasonable papers will also go the same way as the once many fine JP titles.
    It is all so sad and I am sure self-defeating to the underlying profitability of so many papers.

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  • December 28, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Flossie the Sheep.Good comments. The only future is for small local papers to get out of the JP regime.
    Readers letters in my JP local have all but dried up since it began to be written 2O miles away by people who neither care about nor know about the area. Honestly, readers do notice! Happy New Year

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  • December 29, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Flossie, I think you’re right. Papers are losing the goodwill of readers. It was dinned in to me when I was a cub, that the people reading my stories would probably be better educated and more experienced in life than me. I look at my former paper only rarely now, because in it I see poorly written drivel that would never have got past the subs 25 years ago. I’m certainly not going to pay to have my intelligence insulted.

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  • December 29, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Onlooker, I’m sorry, but the standard of reporting and way of writing circa 1900 was nothing short of shocking. Terribly punctuated, overly complex and, for obvious reasons, very few pictures. I make that last point because so many people on htfp talk about pictures selling front pages these days.

    The reason that papers sold in such numbers then was nothing to do with how community-led the news was. It was simply the only place to get it!

    Ex local hack’s comment about local newspapers only making a comeback in local hands is, I believe, partly right. The only issue I have is that they won’t, in the main, be in print.

    Hugely successful investors, like Warren Buffet, have bought shares in lots of local publishers in the US because they look cheap. Investors like him buy cheap and sell when shares peak again, but this is usually across a massively wide portfolio of 10 to 20-year investments.

    Such investors do not care about minor fluctuations in share prices while companies merge, cost-cut and restructure.

    There is little doubt that there will be a lot fewer local newspapers in 10 to 20 years’ time, but those publishers which move successfully into the digital arena will lead a new era of journalism and, with it, profits. This is what long-term investors are banking on!

    Much like the newspapers of circa 1900, once all the mergers and cuts have been made, there will probably be only one place left to get your local news. Gone will be the cat stories, X Factor times and endless drivel about the weather and, instead, some great platforms for local news will emerge… and there will be money to be made from it!

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