Are free newspapers dead and buried? As Trinity Mirror newspaper managers ‘quietly’ close another title, is there a future for the poor old free ‘rag’

advertiser

The Sentinel Advertiser is one of a number of free newspapers which have bitten the dust in recent months.

Is the free weekly free newspaper on the endangered species list?

In the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s the free newspaper was a must-have and must-be seen to have toy of every newspaper group.

They were a cash cow, free to thousands of more readers than their paid for chums, hitting thousands of homes a week, even if readers didn’t want them.

Often cheap to run with cheaper advertising, they were the ugly sister, but effective in bringing in revenue.

Advertisers loved them with their large distribution network.

Hacks were not so kind and laughed in darkened corners of pubs as they described using them for their cat’s litter tray.

Free newspapers were like border guards, making sure no other newspaper group was tempted to set up a paid for or free newspaper in their area.

Quietly, before Christmas, one of my old newspaper’s, The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent, closed its free newspaper, The Advertiser.

A bit of a pauper’s funeral for this once hallowed piece of newsprint.

This newspaper was a beast at its pomp with multiple editions and a vast distribution, up to 80,000, if my memory serves me right.

It took the title from the original Sentinel newspaper which used to be called the Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser — which hit the streets on January 7, 1854.

As I remember, it used to bring in more than £20,000 a week but slumped to around £5,000.

Its death knell was sounded long before it finally closed with distribution slashed without hardly a word to anyone outside the building.

When they first started, free papers had their own staff, but as time and cost-savings gripped the industry they were put together by the same staff as the main paper, as an after-thought.

While I was at The Sentinel , the Advertiser was reinvented on at least three occasions. It used to be full of all the local stories the news editor didn’t fancy.

Then an edict from on high went out from Northcliffe HQ that the newspapers had to be filled with the best of the stories from the paid-for title.

This sent editors into despair. Already under fire from falling circulations and the demands of the internet, the free paper was now in direct conflict with the main title.

But this idea quickly hit the rocks and the next reincarnation came when it was decided that free newspapers should just have trivia and gossip with little or no real local content.

I redesigned The Advertiser into a modern ‘i-style’ newspaper with a load of short gossip stories, no real leads, big pictures and wall-to-wall trivia.

Editors sighed collectively, no more local content and one of the thorns in their circulation woes removed.

At another time, withdrawing your border control newspaper would be tantamount to letting a rival onto your patch.

But these closures just keep coming, Trinity Mirror  recently announced closures and merges of four free newspapers.

Trinity Mirror is not a lone in closing titles. Research by the Media Reform Coalition and the Press Gazette showed that Newsquest, Johnston, Archant and Tindle have all been forced to close titles.

Some of the closures have been due to mergers and having two titles on one patch when only one is required, some others have been due to cost-cutting because the title wasn’t making enough cash.

Since 2005, 198 newspaper titles have perished.  It’s not all bad news, a snap-shot by the Press Gazette shows that in 2015, 46 local and regional newspapers closed with 29 opening, a net loss of 17.

Despite the fact that some people have the guts to set up a new title, the feeling is that you don’t really need a free newspaper to protect your daily because you would need blind optimism to set up a newspaper in these troubling times.

On the other hand, a niche magazine might work nicely, but that’s for another discussion.

So, does this mean the free newspaper is dead? Far from it.

The endangered species tend to be those attached to a bigger paid-for title or in an area where a takeover has happened and multiple titles from the same group are fighting over the same ground.

Soon, when cover price fails to bring in a good chunk of the profit like it did for newspapers such as The Sentinel, the inevitability is that paid for titles will follow the path of some newspapers and become free or part-free.

The London Standard is already free and papers like the Manchester News are free at certain times of week, many other papers are in a similar position.

Just check out the ABC sales figures and look at the last column which shows actively purchased sales, or the percentage of pure sale, for example, the MEN is just over 56 per cent.

Others will follow this trend as the cover price income drifts into oblivion.

It has been interesting to watch the cover price philosophy of late. I have always believed that newspapers have been too cheap.

This meant there was a culture of keeping the lid on the price and rises were one or two pence at a time.

Now, as circulation drops off, the newspaper groups in their wisdom have kept hiking the prices up. The policy seems somewhat flawed.

If a product is doing well, add a few pence on and hope sales are not hit too hard. Now the policy seems destined to bleed the paper dry, whack up the price, and watch the sales decrease at a faster rate.

The cocktail for decline is greater than just everyone is going online. Higher prices, poorer distribution, cheaper paper, poor print quality, far fewer staff, fewer editions have all helped to stick the knife in.

But whisper it quietly, despite the decline, guess where most of the cash comes from? Yep, print…for now.

P.S Did you see the study by Munich and City University academic Neil Thurman which describes how online readers spend 30 seconds a day on the national newspaper web sites compared with 40 minutes in print.

This is surely the reason advertisers will never spend the same amount of cash online as they do in newspapers, they simply have the audience for longer in print.

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The sad demise of the monsters of the darkroom…do you really need newspaper photographers anyway?

Quietly, under the cover of darkness, newspaper photographers, those wonderful beasts who used to prowl the dark rooms, are slowly being picked off.

Even as I write this, photographers have lost their jobs at my old newspaper, The Sentinel, Stoke-on-Trent. This manoeuvre to give snappers the red card has been replicated across the country for sometime.

For Local World newspapers, like The Sentinel, once they were swallowed up by Trinity Mirror the writing was on the wall that cost-cutting was round the corner.

This was back up by TM’s chief executive Simon Fox announcing £12m would be cut from LW’s costs through synergies.

The trauma for anyone who has been through the process cannot be under-estimated, particularly as you go head-to-head with your friends and colleagues as management pull-out the much-maligned skills audit.

It is a particularly unpleasant process, relished only by those who don’t have a heart.

Then there’s the guilt felt by those who aren’t in the firing line this time, guilt that they feel relieved, but fear, that they could be next.

In this day and age when everyone has a camera and editorial departments can harvest content, do you really need fully trained photographers?

In this day and age when everyone has a camera and editorial departments can harvest content, do you really need fully trained photographers?

As I scanned the Sentinel’s latest bygone offering, I wondered whether in years to come a publication like this could be produced, with fewer and fewer snappers around to take those essential photographs, marking history, telling great stories.

I was moved by the thought that the problem was starting to emerge already with photographs which had already appeared in numerous publications reappearing again.

It’s called re-purposing content, but how long can this be maintained? There’s hardly a reader out there who have never seen the photos before and if there are fewer staff photographers, where is the content coming from for future publications?

But then again, if you are just after some quick income and a few sales, this is the way to do it.

Of course, you will argue, you don’t need photographers any longer do you? Everyone is a photographer…really?

Today, we all carry a camera via our phone and in an instant can report a story and upload it online for all to see. All journalists of the future have to be multi-skilled and that includes the ability to take photographs.

It’s easy isn’t it?  You don’t need quality photographs because there’s no need for that pinpoint focus if the pictures are going online, no artistry here, just one click and away.

Then there’s the other reason for the demise of the togs. Depending on which media empire you sit in, it’s called harvesting or curating content, which in layman’s terms means beg and borrowing pictures from elsewhere, that usually means you, me and anyone else who picks up a phone to capture a moment.

Look at the recent attacks in Belgium. How many messages did you see on Twitter with reporters pleading for pictures and video? So if everyone else is taking pictures, why do you need a professional snapper?

In a way, I can’t disagree. If you are going to make cuts to appease your shareholders, desperate times bring desperate measures.

It started with slashing and burning the editions, getting rid of those great copy takers and newsdesk secretaries and then onwards to the grey cardigan brigade in the subs department and the odd editor or two who had the nerve to stand up for his staff.

For photographers, there has been a bit of trimming around the surface over the years, some newspapers got rid of all their full-time staff and re-employed some of them as freelances while others have just cut to the flesh.

So what about photographers? Do you love or hate them? I have nothing but fond memories of these editorial heroes. I accept their deficiencies in the caption spelling department or their artistic rants when the wrong picture went in. I accept that one of my most common rants was over the quality of the pictures and that a certain photograph wasn’t good enough, I phrased it in harsher tones at the time…

However, they offered a lot more. Photographers are great story finders, better than many reporters because they were always out on the streets, listening, watching and talking.

A good photographer would be gone for a day before they would return with a clutch of great pictures and a ‘must’ for Page 1 and, by the way, here’s a great story I just picked up.

Often, as a reporter they saved my bacon. With a camera weighing a few pounds and a bag the size of a baby elephant, I always felt secure knowing that a photographer was one my shoulder riding shotgun while covering a difficult story.

Working with them was often a joy, particularly on the great snatch picture stories. As the tog hung around hidden in the bushes, I’d knock the door, wait for it to be answered, move slightly to my left or right and boom, snatch picture in the bag.

I remember going to Wolverhampton Magistrates’ Court once for a bizarre case involved a man dressed as the Lone Ranger who dropped his trousers in public.

It was going to be difficult to get a picture so the idea was that I walked in front of him as he left court to slow him down and sway left or right for the tog to get the picture. It worked a treat despite some comedian shouting out, ‘where’s Silver?’.

There was always tension between photographers and newsdesk. The news editor sitting on stories and pictures for days much to the disgust of the photo editor realising that there was a front page picture in the building, but they couldn’t use it until the news editor released the story.

This relationship worked in reverse. As a senior member of the editorial team I was sometimes presented with a half-baked front page story and needed something else to make it work.

So often, that was a brilliant photograph. I will go as far to say that my best-ever front pages were because we had great photographs.

Of the awards won by newspapers, more often than not it was the great design that won the day and the design was made by a brilliant picture.

As for the communities local papers serve, it was always a highlight when the photographer popped in, much of this is now gone. The world is a poorer place.

So I may have moaned, groaned and fought with photographers, but their diminishing presence in a newsroom is a significant blow, they will be sadly missed, but then again, we can all take pictures, can’t we?

Trinity Mirror’s New Day, what’s going on? Plus, why the digital revolution is on the march in regional newspaper land

New Day. Not exactly an inspiring name for a newspaper, it sounds more in-keeping with a name given to a church newsletter. But let’s not be gloomy. One paper gone, The Independent, another one arrives.

I’ve read extensively around why TM wants to launch the paper today, with stories of gaps in the market and a large untapped audience, plus a commitment to newspapers, but, unless there’s some deep intelligence I’m unaware of, I can’t make too much sense of it.

New day

Many pundits have been surprised that Trinity Mirror has launched a new newspaper and I ap;laud the company for its bravery.

I can only think that TM has thrown its dummy out of the pram at not acquiring the i newspaper and decided to go head-to-head with it.

On the other hand, maybe TM still realises deep down that there’s still cash to be made in print. Remember, don’t be fooled by the web revenues, as I have said before, some newspaper firms are creaming off money from print advertising income to make online look better.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, except it is hiding the reality that online will never make-up for the decline in print revenues.

So back to the launch of New Day, ok, I’ve only seen one copy, but if this is the future of newspapers then I’m slightly perturbed. You have to wonder who will buy it?

I have said that many were surprised by the launch of a new newspaper because it goes against the TM philosophy which is completely committed to the web, just look at its online figures for the regional press and then the sad newspaper sales figures.

Also, look at the fact that TM is already introducing its 3:1 newsroom into the former Local World editorial newspapers. Sorry, apparently it’s not former Local World, just Local World, despite being taken over…I wonder why that is?

While my former colleagues thought that the so-called ‘transformation’ under David Montgomery was huge, this is in a different league, it’s digital, digital, digital, oh, and a bit of newspaper.

A student, aged 18, asked me the pertinent question of the week: ‘Why has it taken newspapers so long to buy into the digital world?’

The question was spot on.

Back in the dark ages, about 1999, I entered my office in Lincoln and the only way to get online was by dial-up…and that didn’t work.

By that time Northcliffe did have news web sites, but the desire for them to be a success just wasn’t there, someone even told me that ‘hell would have to freeze over first.’

The reasons were mixed for this failure to embrace the web, but mainly it was due to the fact that editors’ feared the web would destroy the newspaper and now The Independent may well have proven a little bit of this story.

On the other hand, was the newspaper doomed anyway? The chances of meeting a journalist who has worked on a newspaper with a circulation rise in the last 30 years is the equivalent of seeing a dinosaur walking along the A50 to Derby.

As I have said previously, by 2006-07, with classified lost to online and households having access to broadband wi-fi, the newspaper business was in crisis.

It was at this point that printing overnight to save costs was the only way forward, which left the door open to the argument that there were now two editions, one for the paper and one online.

The battles between newspaper editors and the digital bods, who had the nerve to ditch their ties, had been won by digital, or so it seemed.

Since 2007 regional newspapers have continued to toy with the web like a playful kitten, many staff not really buying into the culture.

‘Of course we are digital first,’ was the scream heard from the newsroom with a knowing nod and a wink as the best story of the day was held back to sell newspaper in 15 hours time.

Having witnessed the latest Trinity Mirror editorial shake-up taking in the old Local World newspapers, you know the wind of change is just about to sweep through the newly-acquired titles.

Taking a broad brush, TM titles have performed better online than old LW titles, while the LW titles have had better newspaper circulation figures.

But TM’s business is far more digital first. While TM makes encouraging noises about the newspapers, if you picture a large room the newspaper team is over in a darkened corner, waiting patiently for content from the digital team on its 2pm-2am shift…

To put it simply, if I was in charge of a regional newspaper owned by TM I would be ensuring that all my mates suddenly had a role with digital in their title to ensure they were protected…or would I?

If I was an accountant I might be wondering how TM can afford to create this digital empire based on the fact that the cash isn’t really there while the newspapers continue to grind out higher profit.

Back in the digital land of TM, as I understand, you either buy into the ‘revolution’ or you are out on your ear. So all those journos who played lip-service to online, be warned.

There are several aspects to the TM digital model.

Skills are important, but they are not the traditional skills we all associate with being a news journo. This will have a profound effect on those who train journalists, knowledge of court, council or public meeting take a backseat, hello to wizards of social media who understand web analytics or can pull a Storify article together in five minutes.

Then you have to ask about the roles in a newsroom. Effectively, if your story doesn’t get enough uniques, then should it have been written? So, for example, if health or education stories don’t get an audience, why bother doing them?

What about the editor? Does he actually have to edit the newspaper any longer when the focus is clearly on the web? Is the solution is to put someone else in charge and just keep an eye on what’s happening in the cupboard?

If there is no need to have certain specialisms which have been a must in the newsroom of old, what are the roles required? Well, what gets the biggest audience would be the first question I would ask? The answer is football.

This role wouldn’t be just writing match reports, match previews or a story about the odd groin strain, it is far greater than that.

It is all about generating content which leads to debate online, analysing football stats, feeding social media audiences with gossip and tit-bits of information, looking at what content does well and then feeding that with more content.

This is a far cry from a football reporter chatting to the manager over a brew before filing a couple of articles and disappearing off to the pub.

So what does this new newsroom look like? It has experts in a field of content which grabs audiences, forget instinct to pick stories, go for data, move in a data analyst, social media editors and content writers who write stories in advance to pick up the mood of the nation for big events or those special occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s.

Oh, and if the editor is not keeping a watching brief over the newspaper, you need to have someone in charge of that old-fashioned print publishing. So what you will be asking is this good or bad?

Well, it seems to have worked for TM, its digital audience is good. Is it good for journalism? As ever, there are dangers. As I have said previously, rip up the old news agenda and look again. Never have news organisation had such great intelligence on what the audience likes.

But should content be purely based on what the audience wants? I guess, welcome to the real world of retail, has Tesco knowingly ever sold something that it knows people don’t want?

So why should journalism be immune from the art of good business? When the news editor provides a brief from a parish council meeting just ask them, who is going to read it?

Does this mean that those stories based around holding authority to account are now gone, farewell Fourth Estate? This is very possible.

The Independent has said that it will maintain the standards of its journalism online by ensuring big hitters like Robert Fisk are still employed, but what if he doesn’t get a big enough audience?

Who or what will pay for editorial? If the Guardian can’t make money from online and The Sun and The Mail are struggling, what does the future hold?

Both say that the decline in print revenue is not made up with digital revenue and this is the case for most news organisations.

Based on this, can The Independent survive, is there enough cash coming in to keep journalists employed while turning over a profit?

Back in the old LW domain, if you fancy staying in the mix, think, talk and sleep digital, but keep an eye on the newspaper, after all, the old beast still turns a coin.

 

 

Why greed is helping to ruin the regional newspaper industry, as Newsquest cuts staff at the Bolton News

It is devastating. I understand how all those at Newsquest’s Bolton News who face losing their jobs feel, a quarter of the editorial force in that organisation, 10 in total are to go.

They will join a long procession of journalists who have lost their jobs during a bitter decade of decline, many of them great journalists and more than a handful I’m proud to call my friends.

A quarter of the workforce are to be cut in the editorial department of the Bolton News by Newsquest.

A quarter of the workforce is to be cut in the editorial department of the Bolton News by Newsquest.

The first word that came to my mind was greed. I searched for a quote to match my mood and came up with this: “One of the weaknesses of our age is our apparent inability to distinguish our needs from our greeds.”- Don Robinson.

The issue for newspapers is that they have always tried to squeeze the money out of the businesses. I’ve not become a socialist over night (just for the record),  I understand the need to turn a coin.

But it makes business sense not to be too greedy. Here lies the problem. I’m not sure my accountant friends will agree, but newspaper profit margins have always been too high.

Johnston Press used to boast profit margins of 35 per cent and the rest of the industry licked its lips and look with envy at what they had achieved.

When I joined the defunct Northcliffe Newspapers in the early 1990s, the company didn’t have such high profit margins, but they were still heading towards 20 per cent.

The reason is that the company didn’t have to bust a gut to reach 35 per cent was that it was making towards £100m and Lord Rothermere was more than happy, describing the regional newspaper arm as his ‘jewel in the crown’.

Then the collapse in income and the bottom fell out of the industry. Northcliffe, which had posted £96m profits saw them plunge to just £17m and panic set in.

This panic effectively saw the slash and burn team move in and clear out large chunks of the newsroom…and to be fair any other department which could be cut.

While the business started to adapt and modernise, fewer staff, no editions, online first, rather than reassess the need to make smaller profit margins to fit in line with a new business model, companies decided they needed bigger profit margins.

Certainly, where I was last based, they were targeting 27 per cent, certainly higher than in the glory days of larger profits. So with revenues down in news print, online failing to make up the shortfall, targets were set higher.

The point about profit margins is that most companies would be happy to make between 10 and 15 per cent (this is being generous), so you can see how newspapers have been pushing the boundaries…or being greedy.

Gracia Martore, chief financial officer at the Newsquest’s US parent, Gannett, said recently: “Let me once and for all dispel the myth that Newsquest doesn’t make money. Newsquest makes a lot of money.

“In fact, their margin, as I have said a couple of times, is consistent with the margin that our local US community publishing operations generate.

“So their margins are in the high teens to low 20s. And they have consistently made money throughout the years, even in a year like last year when revenues were under as much pressure as they were.”

So here we have it. Straight from the horse’s mouth, Newsquest is doing very well, thank you…

The issue is that the company, like other newspaper businesses are squeezing the life out of the organisations. The more staff you cut, the worse the product inevitably becomes.

Without doubt the newspaper business needed an overhaul. In some areas there were too many people doing the work. However, there is a time when staff cuts are so deep that the product suffers. This can be seen everywhere now.

If these firms were serious about keeping going, they would perhaps decide to reduce the profit margins slightly and maintain the existing workforce to protect the product.

However, by cutting staff the decline of the business becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fewer staff, a poorer product, sales decline further, less income, then cut staff again, the circle of despair is complete.

I know the shareholders would moan desperately about their dividends being reduced if profit margins fell, but they will not get a penny if the business folds.

Surely, it’s worth a gamble to cut the margins, protect the staff and even look to invest in new products such as apps to ensure the longevity of the business? Unfortunately, the words horses and bolted come to mind.