I’ve tried, really hard, to make sense of the words used by and about Johnston Press to describe its products, target market and ideal readers.
But the more I’ve read its recent email to staff and the document for investors reportedly issued by its corporate advisers, the more I’ve been confused by the labels and depressed by the language used.
Johnston Press became a big talking point last week when it revealed what were supposed to be four distinct categories for its newspaper brands.
But regardless of which titles ended up where, what could be more confusing than the largely nonsensical choice of labels used – uber, prime, core and sub-core?
Let’s start with ‘uber’, a word twisted from its simple German meaning (‘over’) to become the street-trendy definition of ‘outstanding’ or ‘supreme’ in English.
Newspapers in this category, like the Yorkshire Post, The News (Portsmouth) and Belfast News Letter, are trying hard to transform editorially and commercially from print to digital, and I’d understand JP referring to them as something like ‘our best’ in terms of efforts.
But why, oh why, choose the overblown superlative ‘uber’, also meaning ‘great’ or ‘extremely successful’, when they are – like any regional title – plainly nowhere near perfect?
To indicate that they are is potentially telling staff that they’ve made it, done enough and can rest on their laurels, while it does nothing for the morale at sister titles outside the ‘uber’ category.
Then come two words which are regularly synonyms of each other but are strangely used by JP to describe supposedly different lists of titles: ‘primary’ (my dictionary’s definitions include: ‘first’, ‘best’, ‘of chief importance’ or ‘principal’) and ‘core’ (‘central’, ‘most essential’ or ‘heart’).
This gets even more muddled when you analyse what JP says about each category in its email: “The [primary] brands will benefit from having a more consistently executed audience and commercial strategy” hardly sounds flattering, while “the core group make a significant contribution and are important brands” does.
But then the document reportedly issued by Liberum, one of JP’s joint corporate advisers, uses the same ‘primary’ and ‘core’ words to draw a different picture.
The ‘primary’ areas, it says, are “the gems of Johnston Press” in “mid-sized market towns and cities, which are economically resilient”, while ‘core’ assets are “those which the company will look to exit and/or run for cash … non-vital to the group”, because they “are struggling economically or are too small to support a viable newspaper business”.
What appear to be opposing views of ‘primary’ and ‘core’ in the above email and document are baffling to me, as I’m sure they are to staff, investors and any switched-on readers and advertisers.
As for the so-called ‘sub-core’, the ‘sub’ has the clear meanings of ‘beneath’, ‘secondary’, ‘falling short’ and ‘imperfect’, which for once is accurate in that it’s exactly how JP wants to refer to 59 of its titles, (a lovely bit of internal communications going on there).
And this is where JP’s language in its staff email started to depress me, like the section where it explains the “three key factors” it believes will help growth.
The first is hyper-waffle that relates to advertisers, but then it gets onto geographies, where JP wants to be “focusing our investments on our primary brands … in markets where the economics show there is most potential for growth, or where their financial contribution is strong”.
And it wants to attract “more commercially valuable, multi-platform audience groups, which we’ve described as ‘Flourishing Families’ and ‘Mid-lifers’ … groups with the disposable income … attractive for our advertisers to reach”.
To me, this suggests that JP feels it can only prosper in successful cities or market towns, or certainly middle-class urban areas, where people have money to spend.
Of course a struggling stock market company wants its operations to include those with disposable incomes in wealthy areas, and if this was signalled as part of an overall mix it might sound reasonable.
But the language used feels exclusive, not inclusive, as nowhere does the above email or investors’ report talk about JP’s responsibility for challenging authority on behalf of the people it serves.
What about standing up for underdog, campaigning for change for the vulnerable, uncovering subjects that people in power are hiding, or even providing accurate, comprehensive information for the general public?
You’ll find nothing that hints at such activities and that’s sad, because if JP has lost sight of its raison d’etre then what chance does its staff have, what attraction beyond consumerism is there for the average family and what – ultimately – is the point?
At the very least, JP needs to ask a half-decent wordsmith for advice and input before it issues or approves such crass communications: cue for action, Jeremy Clifford, (the group’s editorial uber-chief).