Keith Perch, left, edited three daily titles during his career and his now head of journalism at Derby University.
In a chapter for ‘Last Words?’ a book about the future of journalism, Keith charts the revenue decline of regional newspapers since the advent of the internet and the consequent fall in staff numbers.
The book, parts of which were serialised on HoldtheFrontPage before Christmas, is due to be launched this evening at London’s Groucho Club.
Keith, who edited the South Wales Echo, Derby Telegraph and Leicester Mercury, said the fate of newspaper revenues were sealed by the failure of traditional newspaper executives to “understand the nature of the threat or the opportunity of online classifieds.”
“Take property advertising, for example. Newspapers already had a good relationship with thousands of estate agents throughout the country and already gathered details and a photograph of hundreds of thousands of properties from them for advertising every week. Moving this online and making it searchable would keep them ahead,” he wrote.
“But the newspapers did not understand either the internet or the business of estate agents. In newspapers, space was at a premium. As a result, advertisements for houses tended to include just one photograph and very limited details of the property.
“The estate agents were quick to realise the internet offered them the chance to put full details, and lots of photographs of every house, online, giving them rich data which was searchable at any time. They had access to the data via their members and could attract a direct audience without the need for newspapers as intermediaries.”
He added: “Classified advertising simply works better online. It is searchable and always available. There are few space restrictions, meaning multiple photographs and lots of detail.
“The internet has severed the link between advertising and news. The fundamental change brought about by the internet is one of unbundling: somebody looking for a house to buy online will not go to a news site, they go directly to a property website.”
In his piece, Keith claimed that revenues at his former paper, the Mercury, had fallen from £59m in 1996 to £16m in 2011, the last year in which it published separate accounts.
Over the same period, the number of staff employed at the paper fell from 581 to 107, with Keith highlighting district news coverage with the move to single overnight editions as a particular casualty of the fall in numbers.
Wrote Keith: “Geographic district editions have all but disappeared throughout the UK. As newspapers reduced to a single edition, news from outlying areas was perceived as not interesting enough to be carried in the newspaper where most readers were in the core city area.
“As a result, the news from district areas – and the people who provided it – lost value.”
He concludes: “It is clear the catastrophic reduction in the key revenue categories for regional papers has forced them to cut staff numbers by far more than has previously been reported.
“This, combined with other cost savings, particularly the closure of district editions, has led to hundreds of towns up and down the UK losing their daily newspaper coverage.”