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Higgerson challenges ‘small is beautiful’ mantra amid newspaper closures

HiggersonA leading digital executive has challenged the view that small publishers hold the key to the industry’s future following the recent closure of two independently-owned titles.

The daily Oldham Chronicle closed with the loss of 49 jobs at the end of August, shortly after the weekly Cleethorpes Chronicle also ceased publication.

Now Trinity Mirror regional director David Higgerson, left, has cited the two cases as proof that the ownership structure of newspapers makes little difference to the commercial challenges facing them.

Writing on his personal blog, David took issue with a recent HTFP blog post by Steve Dyson in which the former Birmingham Mail editor argued: “The future is beautifully small and beautifully local.”

Wrote David: “To those within in the industry and tasked with delivering a future, it’s becoming increasingly clear that regardless of ownership structure, every publisher is facing the same challenge: to make enough money to remain in business.

“As events in Oldham have shown, regardless of ownership structure or profit requirement, if a publication isn’t making money, it can’t survive.

“Journalists love a David v Goliath battle. Steve Dyson picked up that theme in his recent column on HoldtheFrontPage entitled: “The future is beautifully small and beautifully local.” He celebrates a series of publishers entering the market – but is it that simple?

“Look at the South London Press going into administration after being sold on to its managers by Tindle (before being bought), or the temporary shutdown of the Sunday Independent earlier this year. Both have benefitted from new owners coming in – but if small were beautiful, then surely that wouldn’t have been required.

“The Cleethorpes Chronicle opened in the late 2000s, and claimed to be bringing a dedicated newspaper back to Cleethorpes for the first time in decades. By some commentators, it was heralded as what publishers should be doing: Keeping it local, being skeptical about digital and having faith in print.

“It closed during the summer. I always thought it was a particularly innovative newspaper – simple things like publishing two weeks of what’s on every week because readers like to plan ahead impressed me – but when it closed its owners explained that the challenge to gain enough revenue was just too great.”

Added David: “Years ago, being super local and seen as such was an insurmountable strength commercially. Two words changed that: Facebook and Google.

“They aren’t local, but they devote millions to make themselves first choice in the local market for digital advertising spend.

“They don’t spend a penny on creating content – and only recently have they actively sought to help publishers financially. Should they do more? You bet.

“That’s why I am circumspect about the long-term viability of the new generation of hyperlocal news publications in print. Are they providing something different to Facebook or Google, or have their clients not yet discovered what they can achieve locally through both?”

However Steve has returned to his “small is beautiful” theme in his latest blog published today, chiding Newsquest and Trinity Mirror for “exploiting” the situation in Oldham and arguing that it should disqualify them from receiving help from Google or Facebook.

Newsquest is launching the Oldham Times tomorrow while TM has unveiled a new Oldham edition of the Manchester Evening News – but Steve believes they should have waited until local radio station Revolution 96.2’s attempt to save the Chronicle has been played out.

Wrote Steve: “Why should such publishers get any handouts when they seem so keen to exploit the markets of smaller local publishers in serious financial trouble?

“I’m talking about you, Newsquest, launching the weekly Oldham Times, and you, Trinity Mirror, launching an Oldham edition of the Manchester Evening News, while administrators still search for a buyer-come-rescuer of what was the independent but now closed Oldham Chronicle.”


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  • September 20, 2017 at 9:12 am

    For those of us lucky enough to start in the days when newspapers had proper staffing, quality control, a strong connection to their roots and positive reputations, this ignores the role of the newspaper bosses in destroying all that.
    You cannot blame Facebook or Google, or t’interweb-thingy.
    Newspapers were savaged for short-term profits. Talented staff, loyal staff, from the stone to the print-works, telesales to circulation, telephone exchange to library, newsroom and composing rooms were kicked out.
    The more done on the cheap, the better the profits.
    But newspapers lost a big chunk of the audiences they had and failed to win new readers. They failed to move with the times and threw away a monopoly.
    I personally believe in digital. I believe in print. I believe in quality journalism.
    My own newspaper, a Trinity Mirror title, ignored the web at first, then made laughable attempts to be part of it, now slavishly follows a web-first rule that sees the few journos left retweet ‘news’ hours after other outlets.
    It repackages and retweets and Facebook posts press releases from the football, rugby and cricket clubs. The same with council and police.
    TM desperately trumpets figures about to show how well it is doing digitally, but who is it kidding?
    Let’s have an honest breakdown on hits, of time spent on a website or a story. Let’s see how local, how exclusive those stories are. Lets see where the readers are from.
    Because staff aren’t fooled. Lies, damn lies and statistics.
    And TM gets bigger, borrowing money it hasn’t got, to squeeze the lifeblood out of competitors and set the tone for the shareholders.
    ‘We know best because we’re the biggest.’

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  • September 20, 2017 at 9:34 am

    To quote an infamous phrase from the 60s, Well he would say that wouldn’t he bring the face of TM
    any business which focus on its core audience or sector, is run well with good cost management unencumbered by an inheritance of layers of management from an old system who add nothing but costs will succeed.
    TM are going through a slash and burn process by cutting out the under performing and less profit and parts of the business which makes sense but only because these have been allowed to stumble among unchecked for years.
    New smaller publishers are thriving right across the U.K. sinply by doing all the things the once leading players used to do but no longer feel necessary in their quest to cut costs and are producing well written community news based papers and periodicals which have found an audience, the very sabe audience the larger publishers let slip away while they worshipped the supposed new cash cow of digital, a medium which has proven impossible to monetise despite much crowing about how much traffic they are attracting and how much growth is being seen y/y
    Small is beautiful and very profitable despite mr higgersibs attempted pooh poohing of it, but the more he is in denial the larger the gap between his papers and the audience he so desperately wishes were still his

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  • September 20, 2017 at 11:42 am

    He makes his point quite well.
    I applaud him for sticking his head above the parapet and at least entering the debate.
    Normally, you get a big fat nothing from those in charge.

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  • September 20, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Hearing a lot from Dave lately. Starting to suspect the regional director doth protest too much. Isn’t asking Google and Facebook for money an admission that growth in digital advertising is not as ‘amazing’ as Sarah Pullen suggested it was last week? And is it any surprise? How much did the Manchester Evening News charge the businesses listed in this article: for effectively placing recruitment adds? Dave? I’d be interested to know whether this was paid for advertising or whether you gave it away free.

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  • September 20, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    Higgerson is wrong. It was the end of cinemas when Betamax/VHS arrived, it was the end of vinyl when CD’s arrived and now it’s the end of newspapers because of Facebook, Google and dare I say the BBC online.

    I post this as a hyper (paid for) local publisher who launched my title over ten years ago and it’s still going strong. You have to make the content of newspapers relevant to your target market, it really is as simple as that. Contrary to popular belief, the whole world doesn’t rely on Facebook or the BBC. However, you can utilise social media as an extension to the print product.

    The big difference to say 20 years ago is how companies running newspapers are structured. The ‘big boys’ are still running their businesses on a 50 year old business model and that’s why they’re in the state they’re in. In a local newspaper context, it’s not the print costs that cripple a business, it’s the staffing costs and the luxury of separate editorial and advertising teams is simply unsustainable. The reality for local newspapers today is that you have to have commercially aware/active editorial staff that have the ability/motivation not to require constant management. Dedicated commercial staff are also a luxury unless they have a high consistent performance. You do however need to retain an element of ‘old school’ Editors and allow them room to actually run the titles they’re charged with.

    It’s a scary prospect launching a newspaper but there are huge opportunities for journalists who have an entrepreneurial spirit. I’m happy to chat with anyone who’s considering it.

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  • September 20, 2017 at 5:23 pm

    Hello. Just a couple of replies if I may?

    @Hannoss. Yes, I have been on here too much recently. The stuff being used is from two blog posts written a few days apart on my blog, that’s all. Am I protesting too much? I hope not. It’s very nice of Sarah to describe audience growth as amazing and it’s worth pointing out titles reach many more people daily locally than at any point since the 1970s. A lot of those people are seeing that content through Facebook and Google, and the industry feels it should be seeing a greater share of the reward for the creation of that content. So I don’t think the two points are at odds.

    The link you included was an article written to promote jobs on the TM-owned Fish4 jobs site, so sends people to the TM jobs site. People don’t pay to feature in that list, we choose the jobs to flag up based on our knowledge of the jobs which get attention. This has the benefit of a) reaching more people on the MEN site and b) sending people on to Fish4, where people have paid to have their job ads.

    @saddened journo – On types of metrics we publish, I think I talked about that on the ABCe numbers article last week. We’re a business and aren’t going to share all of our data, but time spent on story is a metric we monitor closely and is one which is rising sharply. We actually monitor active engaged time so track the time people actually spent moving around an article. I obviously don’t know which title you’re talking about in particular within TM.

    @Norridge – I’m not pooh-poohing anything, just offering a view that the ‘small is beautiful’ argument ignores the significant challenges businesses of all sizes face. There are of course success stories (which I mention in my blog on this) but it’s too simplistic to say small = good, big = bad. It’s easy to dismiss someone by saying ‘they would say that wouldn’t they’ but it doesn’t really take a much-needed debate much further, does it?

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  • September 21, 2017 at 8:03 am

    Like Hannoss, I’ve noticed we’re hearing a lot from Dave Higgerson recently. Unlike Hannoss, I’m very pleased. For years, HTFP comments threads were full of ‘why do newspaper firms in the so-called communications business never make any public comment’ posts. And rightly so.
    I don’t agree with everything Dave says or does but I’m very glad he is defending his corner and joining the debate.

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  • September 21, 2017 at 8:20 am

    Agree with Mr Henderson – I launched a local independent online news site 6 years ago. There is no ad revenue until an audience arrives of course.

    So anyone starting out has to wait – we waited for three years.

    But they did arrive, and doubled year on year, because they were served what they wanted; which is what’s going on locally – based on knowledge of the demographic. This includes breaking incidents, Council and some relevant PR. Walking around the patch and looking for news, relationships with people, persistence and speed – but delivered on a fast modern mobile platform, without hindering readers with endless popups and auto play. This is what readers want, frictionless content wherever possible. They don’t want to be patronised with poor quality generic content spun through every title in a brands national portfolio. I wonder how page views are calculated given that on many TM sites one has to click through a survey or refresh page to actually read anything – is that 2 hits for one story?

    Mine is a one-person business, often with support from freelancers and students – but the revenue came as the brand became trusted, and it is considerable revenue . It can be done – content is absolutely king – loyalty of readership (though of course fickle in news consumption) comes from the audience trusting the content. They know that the brand doesn’t produce anything ‘just for clicks’ – nor does it use headlines that are unclear – because of this advertisers also like what the readers like (of course advertisers are people who listen to their customers) – and the customers often recommend us as a platform.

    It’s that simple – there’s plenty of revenue available to sustain a small business – whether or not it can be leveraged or not is the question. Would anyone pay a subscription? No – But currently revenue is there and grows each year – with zero sales effort – word of mouth brings the next client – small feels beautiful over here!

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  • September 21, 2017 at 10:42 am

    Come now, Paul. How have you come to the conclusion that I am unhappy to hear from Dave?

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  • September 21, 2017 at 11:15 am

    Yes Dave! This is a v good answer. So in effect this is paid for advertising, which is commendable. I have no problem with that. Does the same apply in the cases of Greggs/B&M/Marks and Spencer et al? I am simply interested to know. I am not implying that your sites are completely filled with this gubbins. There are plenty of regional journalists doing good work. I know some of them. Unfortunately I fear they are a dying breed, which takes me back to a point you made about lecturers and modern newsrooms recently that I disagreed with. Maybe I will debate this with you another time.
    Your point about audience growth is all well and good. I do not dispute it. Reaching more people locally now than at any point during the 1970s is lovely – but today’s reader no longer has to pay for it do they? When you finish work today pop into Greggs armed with 200,000 page views and ask them how many sausage rolls they’ll give you in exchange. Not many is my guess!! And isn’t it true that without the help of Google and Facebook’s platforms you’d be in Greggs with a lot less than 200,000 page views!!
    This is why my initial response was clear in stipulating Sarah Pullen’s reference to ‘digital advertising growth’ and not digital audience growth. I am sceptical about Ms Pullen’s claim that it is “amazing”. Maybe you can tell me otherwise?

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