A group of former editors, academics and commentators have come together to produce a major new book looking at the future of journalism.
Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? is edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait and will be published by Abramis Academic Publishing next month.
The book contains a number of chapters specifically looking at the regional press industry and over the next week we will be serialising some of these on HoldtheFrontPage.
In the first of our exclusive extracts, Sir Ray Tindle, founder of UK regional media group Tindle Newspapers, acknowledges the current problems but says there is still plenty of life left in the local press.
The press has had a rough time these last few years. Everyone knows about the recession and the new competition and there’s little new or remarkable to be said about the serious downturn in revenue almost every paper has had to overcome. What is remarkable is the scarcity of publicity given to the fightback being conducted every day. Little has been heard about the great efforts made by all newspaper staffs to continue to bring out good papers in the current circumstances. The determination to succeed is clear in every newspaper house, and so we are grateful to the owners and editors of this book and its predecessors for covering this subject. There have been some closures, though these have been partly offset by launches. All or almost all newspapers have been considerably affected by the fall in revenue and the subsequent reduction or elimination of profit. Several of our own TNL newspapers, mainly the bigger ones, have gone into loss at times during the recession but the group as a whole has remained in profit – a reduced profit, of course. Reduced staffs have had to overcome all today’s problems and bring out their papers in good order and in good time every day or every week for months and years on end despite the shortages. That they have done so is in the highest tradition of the Press and is greatly to the credit of all involved.
Local papers are needed
Communities need an independent local newspaper. There are always problems cropping up in most towns and villages. To function properly, local democracy needs an independent local paper. Local councils need a local paper to explain their decisions and plans to the residents. Minorities and individuals need the paper to air their views or objections. Churches, schools, clubs, charities and local sports all need the detailed publicity a local paper gives them. Local businesses know their customers do not normally travel from other towns to use their shops. The local paper, which is read by the very people who should be their customers, is ideal for them. Hundreds of local papers have continued to appear despite a major diminution of the income which makes their existence possible. Lessons have been learned from this difficult situation and better newspapers are emerging as the result. A more viable, more effective Press is already arising and, as has been the case with all previous recessions, revenue will rise again. In the past it has always returned to exceed its own previous high levels. At the moment, the national economy is not helping a lot but that, too, will improve when the Brexit issue has settled down and confidence returns. Of course, in the meantime no newspaper can continue for long to spend more each week than the income it receives. Reduced staffs are ‘holding the fort’ and bringing out excellent papers despite the problems. Thanks at least partly to them, a better, more efficient newspaper industry may well appear following the difficulties we are currently facing.
Keeping the staff in the picture
At the start of the recession I turned the usual Christmas Eve staff gathering at our Farnham office into an occasion when I also told everyone just how things were going for the company. I told them from the beginning I would not solve any problem facing us in this recession by compulsory redundancy while any other solution existed. All managements will have done the same. We would not, of course, during the downturn, automatically replace people who left voluntarily. This worked reasonably well for seven years. But on Christmas Eve 2015 I had to tell the staff at Farnham, for the first time in the recession, the fall in revenue, which had been an annual feature, looked greater than ever. I warned the year had been particularly bad and 2016 looked even worse. I asked the whole staff to consider, along with management, the alternative courses of action we might have before us, together with their problems. Obvious examples were (i) adding to the cover price could further affect circulation, and (ii) adding to advertisement rates might further reduce the volume of advertisements offered to us. The ‘fightback’ in the newspaper industry has taken many different forms but all or almost all are being successfully conducted not only by the big groups but also by the independent family-owned local newspapers. Our own TNL ‘fightback’ as originally planned has worked well so far at Farnham and also at almost everywhere else in our family group.
1000 local newspapers in the UK
Paul Sinker of the News Media Association tells me there are today 1,000 local papers in the UK reaching 40,000,000 people every week. (JICREG 2015). Each will have found its own path through the recession years of reduced revenue. A few have succumbed along the way but the fact to emphasise is 1,000 local papers are published every week or every day plus 1,700 associated websites. The local media are there in great strength because they are doing a necessary, positive, effective job. Many have been doing that job for years. 71 of my own titles are over 100 years old. Life is local. Nine out of 10 people spend the majority of their time and money within five miles of home and they’re proud of the area they live in. (Consumer Catalyst, Think Media 2014). Readers are more than twice as likely to act on the ads in local media than those on TV and social media. (Consumer Catalyst, Think Media 2014). I am just as firmly convinced of the long-term future of our daily newspapers. They are fighting the same problems of falling revenue that smaller weeklies are up against. They, too, are finding various solutions. They have had many battles and crises in the past. They have survived them and they’ll survive this one. Many a newspaperman has watched, or been involved in, a struggle for survival in the past such as the Tenby crisis in 1978 in which my son Owen and I both played a part.
The Tenby story
The Tenby Observer is a small independent weekly. It became famous when it led the fight, supported by Lord Northcliffe and much of the Press of the time, to achieve the passing of the Admission of Press to Meetings Act 1908. Seventy years later in 1978 it was in another fight, this time for its life. The first I saw of it was an announcement in the Daily Telegraph that the Observer had published its last issue. I rang the Receiver that morning and then left for Tenby. I said to the staff: “I can only buy this paper if it doesn’t miss an issue. You are a greatly reduced staff and we only have 48 hours left if we are to get a paper to press this week. Can you do it?” “We’ll do it,” they all said with one voice. I asked the editor and staff if they could get the paper to press in two days with every line strictly about Tenby or Narbeth, instead of the whole of West Wales, and every photograph to be strictly local. The depleted staff worked like Trojans for 48 hours. The paper came out on time, its title returned to Tenby Observer. It was turned round into profit in six weeks and has remained healthily profitable for the following 38 years. We treasure the Tenby Observer and I treasure that first issue we published in 1978 which I still have on my office wall. The resuscitated Tenby Observer almost doubled its circulation in the five or six years following its concentration on the town and nearby Narbeth.
This is 10 Downing Street
Local papers have a very special place in their own communities. They can at times be an essential part of it. A campaign we carried out from l985 attracted the attention of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who took a personal interest. In l984 the country began to feel the effects of a recession. The number of unemployed in our circulation area grew noticeably. This was unusual for our towns. What could we do to help those made redundant and who were still out of work? At the Farnham Herald we came up with an idea. We purchased an empty industrial building and, with the help of volunteers from the paper, we partitioned the building into small segments and then offered these areas, through the paper to those unemployed who wanted to start a business. No rent or rates or other charges were to be made, then or at any time. The editorial people made the offer widely known and also asked for volunteers from the community to assist the unemployed with advice on how to get started. The scheme was taken up immediately by the unemployed. The whole building was soon filled completely. Our particular scheme appealed to those made redundant because it solved the biggest problem facing would-be start-ups. To rent premises can mean needing a deposit and signing say a three or seven year lease. Very few unemployed could go along this route. One day my telephone rang. A voice said: “This is 10, Downing Street. The Prime Minister has heard about your scheme for helping the unemployed. Could she please come and see it?” She arrived for a 40 minute visit. She stayed four hours! She spoke to every unemployed person on the premises. When she left she said to me “This is the answer. Can you do nine more centres like this one?” We opened nine more.
The Isle of Man purchase
Several people have asked why I bought the three weekly papers on the Isle of Man in the summer of 2016. First of all they are very good papers – with clearly superb management, excellent editors and obviously a first-class staff. Secondly, they go back a long way. They are even older (by six years) than the Farnham Herald which was launched in 1892. Thirdly, I am convinced all established local papers will survive and prosper but these Isle of Man examples were particularly attractive and had a good record over the years. I doubt if there’s a better investment obtainable these days than good local papers. To a very large extent the Isle of Man papers will be managed locally. Half the board of this company is now and while in our ownership will always be made up of local people we believe this I.O.M. company will fit in happily with our philosophy.
This philosophy of papers being managed locally means my deputy, Wendy Craig, and I endeavour to run the group HQ with only a small staff. Wendy and I have completed 100 years in local papers between us – 80 of them in Farnham. We have an excellent HQ staff of three ladies. We have five managing directors and 23 managers and publishing directors for our fully-owned 185 titles. We have two meetings a year of all managements and more frequent meetings of managing directors. Reports come in monthly and figures come in weekly. We have kept Head Office small by keeping management mainly at local level and, in any case, we have always tried to keep costs down as far as we can. I started in newspapers with the £300 I received when I was demobbed after the Second World War and we’ve introduced no other capital into the business but have retained and used profits. I’ve never had to borrow a penny to build Tindle Newspapers Ltd. We turned round some loss-making papers and used operating profits to buy or launch others. We now own all or almost all of the shares in the 185 local titles outright and have shares ranging from 6½% to 30% to 49% in another 200. We also own three very good profitable locally-managed and locally-chaired radio stations in Jersey, Guernsey and Tullamore and we have over 125 websites. We’ve come through this dreadful seven year recession still not owing a penny and still not so far having made a single journalist compulsorily redundant. We’ve had some voluntary redundancy and we haven’t automatically replaced those who have left and, of course, it should be said we are by no means at the end of this revenue downturn. I am convinced local weekly papers will be with us for a very long time, though maybe with reorganised cost structures. Everyone wants to read about their own community, and they want to read about it in depth. That’s what we do.
Names, faces and places
When I joined the newspaper industry in the 1940s, I learned a great deal from the old hands. One said to me: “You can’t go wrong so long as you fill your local paper with names, faces and places – that is, local names and local faces and local places.” That’s what we do. Our reporters and subs do it brilliantly. We don’t just take a photograph of one or two individuals, for example the Mayor handing a prize to a winner. We try to have them standing in front of the crowd of people present at such events so that we get lots of faces, not just two, one of which is, of course, in the paper almost every week!
Great future ahead
With this in mind, and knowing as I do journalists on our weeklies as well as on the UK’s excellent dailies are the best in the world, I have no hesitation in saying we have a great future ahead. Our splendid journalists are backed by superb teams of advertisement and circulation staffs. They, together with our hard-working and loyal production, accounts and other personnel, publish daily and weekly papers which make us proud. Of course, other forms of media now exist. They will run alongside our newspapers but they will not supplant them. In the 70s and 80s we had new competition from local commercial radio and local commercial television and hundreds of new free papers covering the country but our best times for circulation and profit were in the Nineties and beyond despite all the new media. At Tindle Newspapers we ploughed back the profit over 45 years to grow the group by purchasing and launching new titles so as to create a more secure situation for the group, for the papers and for the staff. The papers have helped each other through bad times.
We make discreet changes to enhance our publications. We have changed some of our larger papers covering wide areas into a series of several smaller community papers making them closer to their readers and more effective for their small advertisers. At the same time some weeklies have formed area groupings – some groups including local radio. Different parts of the UK require different treatments, and we must ensure we are a medium effective for both small local advertisers and for the larger national ones. We need publicity and good campaigns to boost our effectiveness but this is in hand. No doubt we’ll be introducing further gentle improvements to make our papers even more attractive and viable and certainly making them even more essential to our communities. Newspapers have quietly changed and evolved over hundreds of years since 1643 or thereabouts. My friends in the local newspaper industry will, I know, join me in saying that with our excellent staffs we’ll certainly complete many more years in our communities. If all staff are kept fully in the picture, they can and will work wonders in a crisis. I have seen this over my 70 years in the Press.
Press will most certainly succeed
I am confident the Press will beat its current problems. In my lifetime I have seen us survive a World War and three recessions and the coming of new competitors – radio, local commercial television and hundreds of free newspapers. As I have said, (and it stands repetition), the highest circulation and the highest profits I have seen or heard of were after the recessions and after arrival of all these competitors. Now we have the effects of a recession and of online shopping to add to everything else. The Press is fighting back – hard. In each newspaper journalists, newspapermen and newspaperwomen are working hard to produce even better and more attractive issues. Yes, it’s been a rough few years for the local Press but it is maintaining or returning to its strong position as a most effective marketing medium as well as the most acceptable way of conveying in depth reports of events happening locally and, for the daily Press, in the wider world. Digital ad spend in local media is forecast to grow faster than other published media – behind only video on demand out of all sectors measured – in 2016 (Advertising Association/WARC 2016). Signs for a good recovery and a long future are there. I can only speak for myself as a local newspaperman but I know we have no comparable competitor when it comes to local detailed coverage of all that is happening and all that is important in our towns and in our lives. David Newell, CEO of the News Media Association, commented: ‘All sections of the press are working hard both individually and collectively to demonstrate the enduring effectiveness of the printed word. Newspapers’ role has never been more important in helping to give identities to communities and to act as their champions. Newspapers have a unique ability to partner with businesses and advertisers to help grow their businesses. Their content is now available across many different platforms and this is ensuring that audiences are growing.’
Fighting back successfully
Yes, the whole Press is fighting back – successfully. The Press will be here in the foreseeable future, and in growing strength, because newspapers are highly effective and are needed. Even as I wrote these last few words for this chapter I asked a newspaper MD how things were looking for the next few months. ‘The future’, he replied ‘looks very good indeed.’
* Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait Abramis Academic Publishing Bury St Edmunds £19.95. January 2017. Available at special pre-publication price of £15 to HoldtheFrontPage readers from Richard@abramis.co.uk