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.