On the back of a year in which the impact of lockdown had led to large scale job losses, the big question facing the UK economy at the start of 2021 was whether it could swiftly bounce back from Covid-19.
While some industries undoubtedly continued to struggle, the answer as far as the regional press was concerned turned out to be a resounding yes.
For the first time in more than a decade, the number of new jobs being created and new titles being launched far outweighed the number of jobs being lost and titles closing.
Nor, would it seem, was this just a case of bringing jobs lost at the start of the pandemic back on stream. Publishers such as Reach claimed that they now employed more people than was the case pre-Covid, and the figures seemed to back that up.
The height of the pandemic in July 2020 had seen Reach axe 325 roles across its editorial and circulation operations.
But by July 2021, following a series of recruitment drives, the publisher’s chief executive Jim Mullen, pictured, was able to announce in its half-yearly results that it now employed more journalists than it did in 2019.
At the same time, the trend towards home working continued to radically reshape the industry.
While many weekly newspaper offices had already closed or merged with those of neighbouring dailies, Reach crossed something of a Rubicon in March with its announcement that all but 15 of its offices would close.
It meant that even big-city titles such as the Leicester Mercury – not so long ago the flagship of the old Northcliffe regional empire – no longer had their own offices.
Archant followed suit late in the year by announcing that it would close eight of its own offices, including all those in London.
Newsquest, though, took a different tack, largely eschewing the homeworking trend and making a positive selling-point of this to would-be staff.
Increasing competition between the so-called ‘big three’ publishers was a feature of the year with Reach, Newsquest and JPIMedia contending for readers as well as staff.
Reach rolled out its Live brand of regional news websites across the whole country, inevitably leading to online battles in areas already served by Newsquest and JPIMedia titles.
JPIMedia under new owners National World also embarked on its own expansion drive, launching sites in several major cities under the ‘World’ brand at the same time as reviving the concept of individual editors for individual titles.
And Newsquest increased its own footprint by creating a Wales-wide digital platform, initially accompanied by a print edition although this was to close before the year was out.
Competition to lure the top industry talent also increased with several editors switching between publishers – including Steve Thompson and Pete Gavan, who both moved from Newsquest to Reach, Richard Duggan, who moved in the opposite direction, and Ben Fishwick who joined Newsquest’s Southern Daily Echo from JPI’s Portsmouth News.
Meanwhile Jeremy Clifford, who lost his role at JPIMedia following the National World takeover, swiftly bounced back as the new chief content officer at Archant, while former Nottingham Post editor Mike Sassi resurfaced as editorial director of growing hyperlocal platform Nub News.
Big names bowing out of the industry included Janet Wilson, who stepped down as editor of the Wigan Post after 42 years in the industry, and Gillian Parkinson, who is due to leave the Lancashire Post in March.
And Ian Murray’s tenure as executive director of the Society of Editors came to an abrupt end after he was seen to have mishandled the industry’s response to accusations of institutional racism within the media by the Duchess of Sussex.
If that was a rather undignified exit for an erstwhile stalwart of the regional press, it did rather symbolise the changing of the guard at the top of the industry.
Many of the senior positions on regional titles are now occupied by ‘digital natives’ – journalists whose entire careers have been spent in the post-internet era – rather than those brought up on print.
Some will doubtless see this as a cause for lament, but the digital investment and resulting jobs boom seen over the past 12 months gives more cause for optimism about the industry’s future than has been the case for some time.
The next 12 months will show us whether the ‘post-pandemic bounce’ is more than just another false dawn.