Gloves off for the Johnston Press blame game as Reach goes back to regional subbing hubs with a difference and my part in the creation of a newspaper production monster…

Johnston Press has gone into administration.

The writing has been on the wall for Johnston Press for a few years due to the massive debt the company was juggling with, so it was no surprise that the firm went into administration.

 

Where do we lay the blame for the chaos that surrounds the collapse of Johnston Press? The management? The journalists or journalism? The changing media landscape?

I know that some of you won’t want to play the blame game, but hell, I just feel like it.

As soon as JP went up for sale for £250m we all knew that no-one from outside JP was brave enough to empty their bank account to buy into a turbulent newspaper business.

The CEO of JP and now the CEO of  the newly-formed JPIMedia, David King, put his finger on the button when he announced that the business was going into administration.

He blamed the firm’s acquisitions in the early 2000s as the cause of the firm’s financial mess, you’re not joking…

Obviously, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it was in the 2000s that Johnston Press made some astonishing moves, not astonishing for what they bought, but what they paid.

I remember raising an eyebrow as the firm splashed the cash like a drunken gambler who believes they can’t lose so they keep spending.

In 2002 the managers paid a staggering £560m for Regional Independent Media (RIM).

“This is a transforming acquisition for Johnston Press at a fair price,” said Roger Parry, the then chairman of Johnston.

Fair price. Really? Mr King said that it was not obvious that the business would suffer from the impact created by the rise of the web in 2002 with the loss of classified and motors and the rise of Google and Facebook.

Maybe, in 2002 he was right, it was not too easy to see what lay ahead for the newspaper industry with the rise of the web, home wi-fi, smartphones and Facebook.

But we all knew something was in the air, even back in 1999 as I sat in an office in Lincoln with a ‘dial-up’ to get online. Ok, it didn’t work very well, but even for a then naive deputy editor, I knew things were on the cusp of changing.

This was also pointed out by David Higgerson, Reach’s Chief Audience Officer, who at a conference I attended last summer pulled out a copy of the Birmingham Mail from 1999.

That paper had a puff across the top welcoming a new health and fitness supplement.

As he rightly said, it was an attempt by the paper to grab new readers as sales of the paper continued to slide. It was almost unspoken pact, that we dare not talk of what lay ahead of us, but we all knew, didn’t we?

But when Johnston bought the Scotsman Group for a mouth-watering £160m and were said to be in the frame to buy Northcliffe for £1.6bn in 2006, you would be rightly concerned about who was giving out the advise.

Ok, I accept that this maybe easy for me to say, but by 2006 the writing was firmly on the wall.

In early 2006 Northcliffe had brought in Aim Higher, yep, the accountants were in the corridors of most newspapers in the group counting stories and paperclips.

Job losses were firmly on the card, it was a big clue for the Johnston managers. The second clue came when Northcliffe decided to sell its cherished regional newspapers.

The papers, once loved when they used to bring in £96m profits a year, went from being the most-cherished child to the black sheep of the family.

Oh, the final bit of evidence surrounded the fact that newspaper sales had been in decline since the early 80s anyway. Yes, financially they had held up well, but that was without the threat of the web.

The problem was that the business model was too fragile. It relied too heavily on certain areas of advertising and failed to pull in more income in from cover price, which only ever crept up a penny or two and therefore was never enough to prop the business up.

Despite this evidence, Johnston ploughed on and snapped up the Scotsman titles which only made £7m in pre-tax profits in 2004 anyway, hardly a great acquisition for £160m.

So there were some pretty good indicators around that maybe it wouldn’t be worth paying such large sums for a newspaper business in decline.

And here we are today, a company riddled with debt it cannot pay. Administration had been on the cards for a long time.

Now a new company, JPIMedia, made up of those who were owed money by the old Johnston Press, has been created to run the business.

Under the deal, £135m will be wiped off the firms debt, £35m injected back into it and more time to pay off the remaining £85m debt.

The new company has body-swerved taking on the pension scheme which did not transfer and will come under the Pensions Protection Fund, a scheme set up by the government to provide pension benefits to members of scheme whose employers have become insolvent.

While the pension should be safeguarded, according to holdthfrontpage, some of the pension pay-outs may not be as high. This is a bitter pill for staff.

On the up side, we are told by the new company that jobs are safe, there’s not even that good old ‘for now.’

It is a grand statement to make as the regional newspaper continues to reconfigure weekly to meet the needs of its consumers and the business.

The reality in my opinion is that JPIMedia, like its fellow media groups, will inevitably make editorial cuts once the dust has settled and there’s a debt to service.

This is because, with falling newspaper profits and circulation to consider, despite a growing online presence, I think the only way financial targets can be hit is via streamlining.

We have seen the latest remodelling of the industry with recent job losses at Reach Plc, the old Trinity Mirror, where 41 more production jobs are going.

A few years ago I welcomed the steady move away from regional subbing/production hubs to a return to producing the newspaper on your home soil.

But the latest plan, on top of regionalised sports departments and centralised page units, does see a return to centralised subbing hubs, of sorts.

Before I move on and because I was feeling nostalgic, I managed to dig out some old notebooks (see photographs below).

They show my wild scribblings as I put together a new workflow plan for the then newly-created subbing hub in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of The Sentinel.

Stoke was one of several hubs which took in pages from other Staffordshire newspapers including Tamworth, as production was streamlined and subs lost their jobs.

IMG_5297

This rough diagram shows how I was trying to provide a new workflow system for the subbing hub in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of The Sentinel.

My jottings also show my attempts to calculate how many pages had to be subbed per paper, per day, per sub. Yep, terrifying.

IMG_5296

In this picture I’m attempting to work out the number of pages to sub per day per newspaper and how many staff in the would be required in the Stoke-on-Trent subbing hub, the home of The Sentinel.

It is different this time, as I understand it, looking from the outside in. This time there will be production staff still in the local centres.

The subbing hub will be virtual, so, for example, as I understand it, in my area there will be one big production unit covering the East and West Midlands.

While the local teams will take care of their paper, they will also have the capability of helping out the other centres when the pressure is on and there is a greater ability to share content/pages.

The outcome of all this? Probably more generic pages, similar to the ones which appear in the regional papers at the moment.

You know which pages they are because it’s like you are reading two different newspapers every day, but that’s just my design snobbery coming out, but boy do they look ugly…

Secondly, based on some recent research of one of my University of Derby students looking over the last 30 years, which shows that story count in the local press is way down, I’m wondering if this trend will continue?

Please note, at the moment I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, it’s a debate for another day, particularly on around what is local?

One of the issues is that most of the content comes from the web. This is a bit of a poison chalice, because while the content is perfect for the web, it can be more difficult to translate that into newspaper content.

It’s the reverse of the argument in the late 1990s early 2000s when newspaper content was uploaded onto the web.

The problem with that was it was impossible to search for a story online with a newspaper headline.

Let me assure you, somewhere in the ‘cloud’ are a load of stories no-one will ever find, because they have a newspaper headline, not a web head.

Finally, there’s the thorny issue of errors. holdthefrontpage used to have a field day during the old days of the Northcliffe subbing hubs when it found an error in a newspaper, for example, such as Lincoln, because it was subbed in Hull.

The difference this time is that at least there are some local staff at the local centres who should be able to pick up any problems, hopefully.

So is this latest move good or bad? My old journalist bones shout out ‘oh no’ but I’d rather have journalists employed and a newspaper to buy.

The newspaper industry has to use the technology it has at its disposal, for too long it relied on the old ways of production.

From what I know, there’s still some terrific journalists in the print units who through sheer love of the job will continue to turn-out newspapers to the best of their ability.

For too long, newspapers buried their heads in the sand. You can see by going to www.archive.org and checking out some of the regional websites and realising how far behind they were even in the mid-2000s.

The industry failed to modernise quickly enough. Now it’s all coming at such a pace, it’s hard to keep up. Let’s hope it works.

So back to my original question, is there anyone to blame for poor old Johnston Press going under?

OK, none of us claim to be Mystic Meg, but the foolhardy nature of Johnston’s spending in the early 2000s suggests, without sounding like a shop steward, I think the blame must lie with those in charge.

If Lord Rothermere was prepared to sell Northcliffe without looking back in anger in 2006, surely JP’s top team must have had a whiff of what was going on…didn’t they?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trinity Mirror’s editorial big guns Neil Benson and David Higgerson stirred by Croyden Advertiser’s Gareth Davies after Twitter storm

Croyden

Former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies created a social media storm with his criticism of Trinity Mirror.

 

There have been few occasions as far as I can recall when two such prominent editorial executives such as Trinity Mirror’s Neil Benson and David Higgerson have been moved to respond in such detail from the criticism of one reporter.

I understand that there was an emotional outcry when former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies spilled the beans on how he felt TM was destroying his beloved newspaper.

The response from Mr Benson and Mr Higgerson showed as much passion for what TM is doing as Mr Davies obviously has for the Advertiser and his belief that TM is ruining it.

As stated eloquently by Mr Higgerson, TM hasn’t banned stories which generate less than 1,000 page views.

But, from what I know one of the firm’s digital documents states that 43 per cent of stories on TM’s top 12 web sites have generated an audience of fewer than 1,000 page views.

This is in a section which asks how well the firm’s journalists know its audience. The inference from this section clearly is that 1,000 pvs is a benchmark for stories…

Based on this, you can perhaps conclude that there’s a misunderstanding by some of the TM team over what is required, this isn’t a ban, just a quiet word of guidance.

What is clear, is that TM has a plan, this has not always been the case for many newspaper groups. It is based around growing its digital audience, so the focus of the newsroom is clearly geared towards this.

Analytics of the audience is a tool to help this growth. Never has an editor had so much quality intelligence about its audience.

It means, for the first-time, editors can base decisions on hard facts and not just finally-tuned instincts. I do think Mr Benson describing journalists as ‘arrogantly’ choosing what they want to write about as slightly harsh.

Most journalists I have worked with write stories which they believed were important to their readers. There was never a day when an editor and his top team worth their salt didn’t talk about sales and how to improve them.

The times a gleeful newspaper sales manager entered a news conference to proclaim a sales spike on the back of a top story are too many to remember.

No, the newspaper men and women I worked with were obsessed with their ‘audience’ (readers) so there is nothing new on that front.

The difference is that now there is more evidence available to work out which stories the audience is reading.

What would you rather rely on, fact or instinct with a teaspoon of evidence from the sales history of a newspaper?

However, there is a word or two of caution here, the web audience is different to the newspaper audience, so what works well online doesn’t necessarily reflect what might work well in print.

There is little evidence to suggest newspapers are doing well thanks to the digital-only policy, indeed, sales decline for many still smashes double figures.

I was also concerned with the point raised that there’s more content in the newspapers. Recently, sadly, I spent a day counting stories and pages in a couple of TM’s biggest regional papers.

I used the same formula as I had used when I was a deputy editor and editor and it was clear to me that rather than there being more stories there were fewer. I used to aim for between 65-100 local news stories a day in my papers and a minimum of 15-17 overnight pages.

Clearly, from my research, this wasn’t the case and there were a lot of centrally produced pages, which I didn’t count, because I wouldn’t have previously.

This is not a direct criticism, but there are fewer local stories, fewer pages and newspapers cost a lot more. With staff cuts and an emphasis on digital, something has to give.

One of the reasons for fewer stories is because a journalist will be asked to go out on a story, cover it live, write Tweets, post it on Facebook, a version or two online and then it is shifted to the paper.

This takes time, so one story will be polished, but there’s many other stories that won’t be written due to lack of time. The idea is to get, say 20, great stories online and get the audience to come by building content around them.

I guess the way to resolve this is to harvest content from elsewhere to publish, but once again this takes time, unless you can get out the automatic content scrapers.

When we got rid of the editions of the newspaper and printed overnight the newspaper felt dead, we dreamed of those adrenalin busting days of swapping stories around and writing breaking news.

This died with overnight production, but the web gave us a continual edition and I think reinvigorated the newspaper office, the buzz returned and that was great.

However, the demands are many for the journalists at any newspaper group. The 21st century journalist has to have an array of skills, which is exciting for the next generation.

At the centre of this is the ability to tell a great story using core journalistic skills but they also need to understand how to attract an audience using analytics, understand Twitter and Facebook, after all, just view these as modern day bill boards, the ability to use Facebook Live or Periscope, to edit video and write great SEO.

Challenging, yes, but this multi-skilling has helped to reinvent a business which was floundering. It is because a journalist is asked to do so much that massive effort is put into key stories.

What these stories are, is now based on a history of performance online. Is this click-bait then or the ability to give the audience content they want to read?

After all, a newspaper and a website are products which have to be sold, I can’t see Tesco’s selling something no-one wants to buy.

Similarly, why would a media organisation provide content no-one wants to read?

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of concerns about the ability of firms to hold authority to account, for example, how many local councils and health authority meetings are covered today?

Newspaper groups may well argue that the reality is that no-one wants to read this anyway, where is the audience, so why cover them?

I completely understand Mr Davies for being so annoyed with the way TM has developed. But what choice did the firm have?

Newspaper sales are in terminal decline and there’s a chance to keep the business going by throwing resource into digital.

The issue however comes down to cash. Most of the money still arrives from newspaper advertising and sales, as sales decline, so will the cash.

However, no newspaper group will ever be able to get the same revenue returns online, even if the cuts go deeper.

So we will all have to accept that it’s a different business, one with less income, better audience knowledge, journalists with different, but more skills.

Is it better or worse than when I started? Difficult to say, it’s just different. I often had the discussion with my newsdesk about content.

I constantly challenged them on whether the stories newspapers had traditionally covered were the stories for the 21st century readership?

What we are seeing is that the content produced has to reflect the new needs of the audience.

The web has proved that a re-focus of what is good content is needed and that is why it has changed and Mr Davies is unhappy, as are many other journalists who plied their trade when regional newspapers were in their pomp.

There is an argument to say that the policies of modern newspaper groups has accentuated the decline.

But for at least two decades the industry dithered over what to do with the web and while this went on the world passed it by.

Now there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Regional journalism has some great challenges ahead. My hope is that surely, continuing to tell great stories means that it will continue to be the best job in the world…for now.

 

 

 

 

The folly of 24 as it joins the graveyard with New Day…and regional editors continue to face print v digital dilemmas

 

24

After the demise of New Day, 24, the North’s National Newspaper has also shut after just six weeks.

 

Like most media pundits, I have no pleasure in being right that 24, the North’s National Newspaper has shut after just six weeks.

I flippantly said that not even Kiefer Sutherland could save this 24, sadly, like so many people in the newspaper industry, we wished it success, but deep down knew it had little hope.

Six weeks is not long enough to see if something will work. However, I would be more concerned about the thought processes which set the wheels in motion to launch the paper in the first place, as I was over the strange decision to launch New Day, which lasted just nine weeks.

I admire entrepreneurial spirit, but with the landscape increasingly bleak for papers in the regions, just look at the latest ABC figures, and the next batch will not look much better.

The figures suggest that the newspapers with the lowest sales have a lesser decline because there’s nowhere else to go in terms of decline, while the biggest papers just keep losing big chunks of sale.

The dilemma an editor faces today is where to put his resources. Within a company such as Trinity Mirror there is a clear digital first strategy.

Previously, I have discussed how, despite putting a brave face on it, the newspapers are taking a back seat  as TM newspapers strive to get a slice of the digital audience.

This has left many journalists at the group upset with industrial action threatened at some of the newspapers.

But the reality is that there’s a relentless move to bring in the audience and get page views at all newspapers.

Based on this the editor has to decide to whether to put all their eggs in one basket and just do digital or carry on doing the paper and hope no-one notices that digital performance is lagging behind.

Of course, you might say that editors need to do both. The reality is that with fewer staff than ever before you cannot be all things to all men.

The philosophy of digital content has shifted. In the early days, regional newspapers used to put up every story written for the newspaper, often in one bulk upload.

Things are more sophisticated now and there’s a constant flow of content with particular emphasis on key times of the day and for the digital operation, rather than throwing up as many stories as possible online, to polish fewer stories and build more content around it.

The outcome is that many of the digital stories can take time to put together. If a reporter is out live blogging from an event, or on Facebook Live, taking pictures, and sending out Tweets, the chances of doing many more stories in a day is limited.

So when the print gang turn up to produce the newspaper they may not have as much content to play with as they had in a bygone era, where story content and value for money were high on the editor’s agenda.

What I have noticed is to compensate for the drive on digital in the regions, paginations have gone down, as has story count, while at the same time the cost of buying a newspaper has risen dramatically.

While the decline in sales has been endless, the above is a recipe for a nose-dive.

But does it matter? The business is firmly placed in digital land and the newspaper is just one aspect of that.

While The Independent took a brave step to bin its paper version and go digital only, I still think that a modern media firm needs both a presence online and in paper.

At the moment the revenue from newspapers sales continues to boost the coffers of these firms, but increasing cover price will inevitably see the readers disappear.

Once this happens, a different model for print will have to be created and the once great regional beasts will probably have to consider either charging £2 a copy or going free or part free.

But, as the grip on staff numbers tightens, who is going to want to read regurgitated content in the newspaper which appeared online 12 hours earlier?

My thoughts were always to make online the first read and the paper the last read.

The Times has taken a similar stance, both in paper and online. It doesn’t published continuously unless a big story breaks. This allows the paper to print online in an edition structure and the benefit is that readers get the fuller story rather than endless snippets.

This flies in the face of just about every other news media outlet, but it is not without merit when you think about the endless content put out when a story is breaking and having to piece it all together like a jigsaw.

It is an experiment worth watching but perhaps reflects the readership of The Times, 55+, who frankly do not fancy endless news feeds.

However, we all have to remember that the paper is still the cash cow. Simply, advertisers pay pence for page impressions and the cash coming in is not enough and certainly will never reach the scale of the amount of money made by newspaper businesses in their pomp.

Finally, I was with an SEO news guru a week or so ago and they stopped me in my tracks. Passionately they spoke about how to get your news on top on the Google pile and it’s often down to the fine art of SEO headline writing.

Who were the best headline writers? Sub-editors. The expert went onto say that media groups will regret not having this much-maligned breed back in their newsrooms, surely they said, they would have been the best SEO headlines writers in the business?

Food for thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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.

Don’t blame the rise of the ‘evil’ web sites for the decline in newspaper sales and jobs of journalists, there are darker forces at work

It’s easy to blame the web for the decline in newspaper sales. Like most industries, there’s always a need to find an easy answer to what went wrong, but this is too simplistic. Why did sales fall off the end of the cliff?

The reality is much more complex than the emergence of the web. The internet wasn’t just switched on in 2006 and the world came to an end. Why 2006?

Having emptied my briefcase for the first time since 1987, I came across some fascinating sales figures from a couple of newspapers I was lucky enough to have worked for.

What they clearly highlight is that for regional newspapers life was pretty rosy until this point.

The rise of web sites isn't the only reason why newspaper sales have declined.

The rise of web sites isn’t the only reason why newspaper sales have declined.

The figures I found, even with the bulks taken out, show that though sales were on the way down, it was a steady, moderate decline, not the 10-20 per cents we are seeing now.

So, from the early 80s until 2006 the average annual sales decline according to my stats was around -2.6% for the newspapers I worked for. Many editors would give their right hand for this result today.

Then we hit 2006. Suddenly the average sale loss hit between six and seven per cent, for some it was even heavier losses.

This became the trend for a few years until around 2012 when newspapers, if they hadn’t already, started hitting the double digit sales decline. Today, other than the odd exception, most of the decline sits unhappily above 10 per cent.

Those which aren’t quite there are often the smaller selling newspapers which have probably hit the plateau of decline. Indeed, if they were in double figures they would be shut or free within a couple of years.

What this decline does show is that the web is not the only excuse for the sales loss. The web has been around for many more years than the last nine years of rapid decline.

I accept that newspapers pay more attention to it than ever before, but that’s because the newspaper sales decline has speeded this process up. What actually happened in those dark days of 2006?

The truth is that the advertising income suddenly collapsed, particularly classified, and owners realised that the regional newspapers were no longer cash cows.

One regional newspaper owner used to call their regional papers the jewel in his crown as the millions rolled in. But it was in 2006 that they suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth, the royal visits to the provinces ended, never to return.

With the prospect of incomes on the slide there was an invasion of grey-suited consultants. They entered the offices to start their bean counting. What was sad about the process of dismantling the business was that these poor folk knew nothing about newspapers.

I remember well being questioned why one reporter had only written 10 stories in a month and another 200. The answer was simple.

One was an investigative reporter who helped to jail a county council leader. These kind of stories cannot be knocked out in five minutes, the other reporter was a junior who spent their time banging out nibs.

But they just didn’t get it and asked how many stories could be written in an hour, in two hours. How many pages could be subbed in an hour or a day?

By the way, the target was to sub eight pages a day. I recommend any sub/content editor to see if they can sub eight pages a day based on a reasonably high story count and small ads. It’s really tough, no chance of a lunch break.

So with incomes down, staff cuts, getting rid of editions, reducing the covering of courts and council, reducing pagination, printing on toilet paper, increasing cover price, oh, and a bigger emphasis of the web, sales started to dip dramatically. The perfect storm.

Ok, I can’t hang my coat on any one of these being completely responsible for the sales decline. Collectively, however, they are a potent force. What it does mean, however, is that the evil web is not necessarily to blame.

Equally, the web is not the part of the business which will prop up the newspapers either. Yep, we all know the truth, that however you fiddle the figures or get the poor advertising folk to flog ads online, the chances of making up for print revenue decline via the web is as unlikely as England winning the Ashes this year or anyone considering that George Bush was a great president.

If it could, we wouldn’t have seen the cuts that have really impacted on the business. Peter Preston’s article for the Guardian reinforced this view this week, you can read it here http://bit.ly/1AGm0FA

Peter has viewed the latest figures from Murdoch’s paywall sites and the Mail online. The paywall was designed so that digital money covers the loss of print advertising and cover-price cash. Unfortunately, it’s not working.

At the Mail, growth was scheduled at 40% year on year, to bring in £100m in ads online this financial year and make up for the decline in print revenue.

However,  growth has dropped to 20%, the half-year digital ad take, at £36m, makes £100m seem a distant dream. I don’t have all the figures to hand, but you can only think that this is a similar picture across all national and regional press.

So, I go back to my argument in my last post. Surely, all newspapers need to look outside the newspaper/web model? Specific apps, with great content, written by expert journalists cornering the market in their subject might be the way forward.

Remember, mass media has gone. Personal media is the way forward, so deliver personal media. What do advertisers crave most? They want to know that their adverts and promotions hit the bullseye (target audience) like darts champ Phil ‘the Power’ Taylor in his glory days.

This is what apps can do. Why not give it a go?

Why regional newspaper web sites will end up a busted flush and how to save the jobs of local journalists

The first newspapers, if they can be called that, often wrote about and targeted specific markets/audience. Regional newspapersA lot of what was written was about politics and was spiteful and untruthful, similar to today?

These were the days before mass media. Early newspapers/pamphlets were so small that if you lived a couple of streets outside its ‘circulation’ area there was little or no chance that you would have a clue what was being written about.

Slowly, the content broadened and started to look like the offerings served up in today’s newspapers. It was thanks to the Victorians that the term mass media was born.

Taxes were cut on newspapers so the chances that a decent business could be made from the world of news became a reality. Add to this the machinery to produce newspapers in large numbers and suddenly things started moving, and they did.

They moved rapidly away from the concept of the niche market. Why write content which was limited to a couple of streets when you could talk to a whole town, city,  county or country? The bigger you were, the more profitable.

So here was the birth of the mass circulation newspaper, both nationally and regionally. But the world has changed. As I have said previously, mass media has been replaced by personal media.

Readers today want to pick and choose what they read, back to the old pick and mix section in Woolies. They no longer want to have to skim the news to find what they want, it has to be delivered to the doorstep.

This makes you ponder the usefulness and longevity of local newspaper web sites. Regional newspapers seem firmly set on continuing producing the same kind of site without any thought of how successful it can be in the future in terms of audience and advertising.

It is inevitable that the web sites will grow rapidly for the time being as the life is beaten out of the newspapers by continually increasing the price and further reducing costs, but this rise will have a ceiling.

The battle to retain web audience and reduce the high bounce rate will become as tough as retaining newspaper sales. The policy of using web bait to randomly grab the audience for a brief few seconds will not build the audience.

One of the main problems is that the web sites reflect too heavily the newspaper ethos of being all things to all readers.

We know that this cocktail of content is not what people want. The future both in terms of revenue and content for the regionals must surely lie elsewhere than the busted flush of a web site only model.

If readers really want specific content, let’s give it to them. Why give readers unfathomable web sites when the media business can offer more sophisticated ways of delivering content?

Ok, keep a web site if it allows  newspaper owners to sleep at night. But for the sake of the business they have to look at producing specific content through the use of apps.

Advertisers would be right to question how successful their ads are on a newspaper web site and whether they get value for the pittance of money they pay.

However, offer them the chance to advertise on a specific content app, which has quality journalism and targets a niche audience which is after their product and you can see how this might be a better, more profitable business.

For example, why not have an education app for your area. Writing about schools, play groups, universities, bringing up children, opens the doors for advertisers desperate to hit the family market directly. What the advertiser will know is that every time someone clicks on the education app they are likely to be after what they are offering.

Apps are more expensive to create, but the cost is coming down, and the likelihood is that newspapers can charge a premium for advertisers to buy slots on the app.

Without doubt, the existing newspaper web site business model will not be able to bring in the income these businesses will want. However, rather than cost-cutting, why not expand and modernise the model?

There is a great future for the young journalists. The need for quality content is greater than ever before. The issue we have to accept is that it will not be within traditional media.

If the wise regional media executives want to truly modernise their business and move away from the stale web site scatter gun approach to content, they will look to niche apps. If you think I’m wrong, just consider for a minute how many specific apps you now turn to for your content.

Think about your interests and then how frustrating it can be to find exactly you want in chaos that is online. But if you had different apps with your interests on without the sweat of fighting with the web, it would make life so easy.

Regional newspaper groups have the tools to change, but have they got the guts to make the plunge or just go for the easy option of more cost-cutting?