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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

They think it’s all over…should regional newspapers pull the plug on football match reports?

The screams of disgust could be heard across the land as regional newspaper hacks muttered desperately into their frothing pints of real ale.

The source of this despair was the news that Tom Bodell, who works for Newsquest North London, will no longer provide on the whistle Barnet FC match reports or in-game tweets for the Barnet Times website, or match reports in the print edition.

Why we all asked? The reason was simple, not enough web hits. It would have sent the most hardened journo racing to the bar for a top-up.

So are all decisions on stories going to be based on web hits? I have already touched on this issue before. The defunct Local World used to shout loudly by the fact that health stories didn’t get any hits so bin them and deliver more servings of web bait.

Pitch
Regional newspapers have to decide whether they can afford to cover football matches like they have traditionally done so in the past.

The reality is that not all health stories, all council stories or all football stories get big hits. Some health stories fly online, like the threat of scarlet fever or a dodgy doctor.

But the run-of-the-mill health stories often don’t get many hits online, despite the fact that they were often of real importance around staffing or finance.

We already know that Trinity Mirror journalists were threatening strike action over the firm’s ‘Big Brother’ approach to set journalists targets over how many hits they get on their stories.

In a New Year goodwill gesture, TM has now withdraw this idea…for now, although the newspapers which are doing this as a trial will continue to do so and it is certain that it will be back on the table soon.

So where is this all leading? Obviously, part of Newsquest’s decision was based on cost. The reality is that journalism is expensive and is seen as a drain on resources and not one to bring in the money, which is not true.

Selling more newspapers thanks to a big story or getting more hits online are areas where you can argue the journalist helps to bring in the cash.

There are other ways, through business awards run by newspapers which are events cleverly packaged as celebrating greatness, but the reality is that they are a damn good advert for firms involved.

Let me assure you, I’m not knocking this, I’d rather bring in £100,000 for the business to protect jobs than turn my back on this money-making opportunity.

Anyway, back to the web hits. What really annoys journalists is that based on web hits, certain stories may well never be covered again, this could include aspects of holding authority to account, what we often proudly call Fourth Estate journalism.

But there is another argument. Simply, what if the traditional news agenda is wrong? When I was in a senior editorial position I would often question whether the stories put up in conference were the stories which people really wanted to read?

While the web audience is different to that of the newspaper, what the web has shown is that so many of the stories which traditionally appeared in regional newspapers didn’t really get read.

In a bygone era we relied on instinct or newspaper sales spikes (do you remember those?) to form an idea of what our readers wanted.

However, even if we were right about that for a period of time, that news selection passed down through generations of news editors and editors may just be out of step with the rest of the world.

Going deeper into this, the bundling of news into a newspaper is an out-dated concept. As I have said before, it’s all about personal media, not mass media.

So if football match reports fail to grab the audience, do something else. It is clear from the report on Barnet that aspects of the club will be covered, the parts that in many respects the fans are more interested in and will get an audience.

Football fans want so much more than reading about something they have just watched.

A simple match report is all but dead in the water. Football games can be covered live, so why would I want to read a match report hours or even days after?

This is where a football writer now comes into their own. They have to look deeper into the game, look at data, talk to the fans, or a moment in the game and look to expand what happened in that moment which changed the game.

It means football writers have to have a holistic view of the game and look beyond the usual ‘the lads done well quotes’.

What readers are after is the extraordinary, the piece of data or insight which will make them stop and say ‘gee-whizz’.

How many football writers really know everything about the club they report on? Do they understand the finances, the work of the physio, the nutritionist, the groundsman, when was the last time they spoke to a ref?

And remember, in the future all football clubs will provide their own match reports. We are moving faster and faster to the situation that exists in the States where American football clubs provide all the reports and interviews directly to the media without an independent journalist anywhere to be seen.

There is a massive movement towards professionalising media output right across the football world, most clubs will be asking, why do we need to even talk to journalists outside the inner sanctum of the club?

Back to the demand for web hits. It won’t go away, particularly as some senior staff get a bonus based on performance, a case of forget about the quality, go for the numbers, Primark economics.

This goes hand in hand with the demand to make more cash online despite the fact that print still is king on the money front. The solution, casually transfer funds from one to the other, which makes print look like its cash income is declining more rapidly and the web is booming.

It’s a slight of hand. Lies, damn lies and statistics, but if it keeps my former colleagues and friends employed, I can live with it.

If there’s any budding football journos out there who want to get some experience in reporting, I’d bang on the door of Barnet FC.

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?

Are beautiful redesigns, better quality newsprint and more pages the way to halt decline in newspaper sales?

While all newspapers should be beautifully designed,  it won't stop the sales decline.

While all newspapers should be well designed, it won’t stop the sales decline.

For years I have admired beautifully designed newspapers. I was fortunate to work for some brilliant regional newspaper designers. I’m eternally grateful to them for teaching me the fine art.

I even managed to win a Front Page of the Year award, a proud moment. As I cast my eyes across regional daily papers it is clear there are some fantastic looking newspapers.

Is design important? On a couple of levels, yes. The design sets the tone for the paper and helps readers to navigate around them.

The only problem is that some newspaper groups still think that a new design will drag the readers back and halt the sales decline. Unfortunately, I have not seen any lasting evidence of this.

Any real sales lift comes through short-lived promotions such as buy a paper and get a free chocolate bar which is probably at the end of its sell-by date. Yum.

There is also the idea that a ‘modern’ design will attract new, hopefully younger readers. Once again, where is the evidence?

Is this tinkering while Rome burns?

As an editor and deputy editor, no-one ever rang me or wrote to me complaining about the design, there was never a hint that they didn’t like the colours or lay-out on Page 15.

The only real complaint in this area was from older readers unable to read the paper because the font was too small or the text couldn’t be read on a tint that was printed poorly on low grade newsprint.

On the other side of the coin I had hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints about content. Content is king.

So this brings me to the point. Newspaper designs can be wonderful to look at and the friendly rows I’ve had on the finer points of a pastel shade here or a different font there are memorable.

However, design is something that really only bothers journalists or the hierarchy (attempting to have a pretty looking shop window before a sell-off)  more than its readers.

There is a difficult sum. With a decline in sales there’s a revenue shortfall.

The answer for newspaper groups is to lop a few more pence on the cover price. The outcome is…a further fall in sales.

As an aside, I have always thought that newspapers were too cheap.

But the problem is that they have been cheap throughout time and it is ingrained in readers that they should cost as little as possible.

With this embedded cheap as chips culture, any price rise is looked at as a criminal offence by disgruntled readers who stop buying the product.

The latest ploy by some papers is put the price up, maybe even improve the quality of the paper and then add pages to the paper so it has more of a ‘kill the cat feel’ than the present feather light versions.

However, with fewer staff and more pages to do, the outcome will not really benefit of readers. It just means spreading the content more thinly across more pages.

So what do you end up with? A bigger paper in terms of pages, possibly better quality newsprint, but the same amount of stories spread across more pages and it will cost you more.

Sounds like a bit of a con.

Is this a recipe for success? I’ve been down this road before. It certainly doesn’t provide the answer to how this industry can survive the 21st century.

Editors, the great beasts of the newsroom face extinction as the desire for money replaces ethical journalism

Editors. Those great beasts of the newsroom. So often they have been misunderstood by those who work with them.

They are made out to be characters to fear, as if they are some peculiar villain from a Hammer House of Horror film.

Every newsroom I have entered had a legend about their editor and some terrible, dark deed.

The reality is that commercial pressures are so strong that many newspapers have buried or not reported stories involving some advertisers like the Daily Telegraph and HSBS.

The reality is that commercial pressures are so strong that many newspapers have buried or not reported stories involving some advertisers like the Daily Telegraph and HSBS.

Eccentric behaviour included throwing typewriters out of windows, threatening staff with violence, pulling a gun out on a senior member of staff or just snarling at journalists as they headed through the newsroom on their way to the pub.

Some were so feared you never spoke to them unless you were called into their throne room.

The stories all had an element of ‘brutality’ of the boss. As time went on this feeling changed to admiration as staff realised this psychopathic behaviour was all about creating an aura in a bid to protect the newspaper and its brand.

The editor needed to be bullet-proof to help them in the fights that lay ahead.

One of the main battlegrounds was editor v the advertising department.

Don’t get me wrong, all editors I have known were more than aware of the need for the business to turn a coin, indeed, many are more commercially savvie than their advertising counterparts.

However, the editor has always had to look at the bigger picture. Why sell your soul for a £150 quarter page ad if the brand would be damaged?

The battles over the horrific ad features were long and hard, as were the fights to stop ‘L-shaped’ ads on page one or full-page ads on the back page of paid for newspapers.

Why would you want to read about your local football team when you could view the latest ad for Virgin trains?

Why fight? Simply, readers mainly buy the paper for news, not adverts. Get the audience in to read the newspaper and the ads would be read. No-one ever said to me I can’t wait to pick up the newspaper for that half-page ad for double-glazing.

So the editor has always been there to protect the brand. Unfortunately, this often led to scenes which wouldn’t have been out of place in a sequel to the Godfather.

Ad reps could often be seen quivering as they presented the latest ugly ad feature planned for page five. The editor’s laser eyes would fix on the poor rep as they tried to persuade them to bend this one time.

What the editor knew was if they did bend the rules once, the floodgates would open and the next move would be for a full-page front page advert selling the delights of a local seedy massage parlour.

But life has changed, a creeping theft of space higher up the book is on the march, first pages two and three were surrendered to full-page adverts, then the back and the future of all front pages is under scrutiny.

Slowly, the power of editors has been removed, those in charge don’t believe they have a use and there are mutterings that all journalists should be editors-in-chief. How wrong they are.

The pressure is on to put ads in places which was usually the realm of quality stories.

As newspaper companies manage their decline, they are trying to bleed the business dry and accentuating the decline by caving in to the desires of advertisers.

Peter Oborne has already lifted the lid on the Daily Telegraph bowing to commercial pressure by failing to publish stories about one of its advertisers, HSBC.

What has surprised me is that everyone seems so horrified. For years there have been heated debates between editors and managing directors about whether a negative story about an advertiser should be published.

Rightly, the editor has stood their ground. But this breed of editor is being surgically removed from newspapers across Britain.

They are being replaced with journalists who, through no fault of their own other than they have diminished power, just say ‘yes’ to everything or face being black bagged.

Once again, I stress that editors more than anyone understand the principles of business and know cash is important, but they would never dream about not printing a court story about an advertiser.

This would be a rocky road for the so-called Fourth Estate which is meant to be independent of government and business.

Readers definitely want to know if there’s a crooked car dealer or butcher in town, but the likelihood of publication is now not a given as in a previous life.

There will be former editors who will be shouting at me over this statement, telling me that it’s time the new class of editors ‘grew some balls’, so to speak. This is not that easy when your opinion holds little or no weight in the business.

Nick Davies in his book Hack Attack says: “The commercial pressure in UK newsrooms is relentless, particularly for mass-circulation titles.”

His point is that journalists have to get that exclusive whatever it takes to ensure that a newspaper sells and revenue tumbles in from sales.

The problem is that with falling sales nationally and locally, great stories aren’t going to bring in massive sales so there’s a decline in revenues.

To make up for this revenue shortfall is the desire to sell space wherever an advertiser wants it, to the detriment of the entire product.

Peter Oborne is right to be outraged, but as we are finding out in this bitter spat between national newspapers is that, with a nod and a wink, newspapers have been protecting big spending advertisers for some while.

The truth is that similar decisions on what to and what not to publish about certain advertisers is going on all of the time, these are not isolated incidents.

The editors of old were right to stand firm, but like dinosaurs they are about to become extinct and the newspaper industry is a poorer, less ethical place without them.

Pity the poor lonely journalist having to publish without the help of a grumpy sub-editor

Journalists have to get it right first time now they don't have sub-editors watching their backs.

Journalists have to get it right first time now they don’t have sub-editors watching their backs.

Here I sit in a darkened room with just a lamp to lift the gloom. I am a hostage to error fortune.

I’m living in fear, a deep fear of a possible spelling error or a stray apostrophe in this blog.

In a different time, many eyes viewed your copy before publication.

Not now. It’s a case of getting it right first time or be held up to ridicule by your peers.

The idea of getting it right first time is admirable. However, it removes the one element which cannot be resolved, human error.

There is an army of very well-respected journalists I have worked with who have made mistakes in copy, not terrible errors, but ones which would leave the endangered species of a sub-editor screaming in horror.

The mistakes don’t make them terrible journalists, just human.

I am also an unwilling culprit. More than once I have beaten myself up for making a mistake, lying awake for hours asking how I could have been so stupid?

Copy, or content as it seems to be called now, starts with the writer, nothing has changed here.

In another time it would then have been viewed and corrected by the stressed out news editor and then sent across the bridge to that world of craft we used to call the sub-editing department.

This was the part of the newsroom where your career was made or left in tatters.

The swearing, head shaking and name-calling could often be heard across editorial as the sub-editor ploughed into your copy.

There were some brave souls who would approach the sub-editors without an invitation, after being verbally abused by them, as their copy was pummelled into some kind of printable shape.

A gentle query of ‘is there a problem’ would be greeted with sneers and sardonic grins.

The humbling of the reporter would often continue in the depths of the smoking room. Here, at the Court of Sub-editors, the latest error by some young reporter would be discussed in a fog of smoke.

Sentence would be handed out as the roll-ups were extinguished in the ashtray.

The outcome often meant months of terror for the journalist who would make an extra effort to ensure copy was crisp and clean as a whistle in the wake of their mistake.

It was only then and after a few pints of ale at the local hostelry that a ceasefire was called and the sub-editors agreed that the writer wasn’t so bad after all.

The reality is that the sub-editors were (some still are) the goalkeepers of the newsroom, often the final critical eye before publication.

The sub-editors’ views on life were simple, if a journalist was unable to spell a street name correctly, then what other horrific errors lay in wait for the them?

It was a matter of trust. If a journalist’s copy was clean, the theory was that the likelihood of other errors was minimal.

Today’s journalists do not have the comfort of so many eyes viewing their copy.

They are told to get it right and then publish. The expectation on their shoulders is considerable. (By the way, I am only concentrating on errors, the fact that copy often doesn’t get the chance to be rewritten is another issue to be discussed some other time.)

However, the number of mistakes I see, particularly online, surely sends a shudder of despair through the ranks of my former sub-editing colleagues.

If there are errors, then trust slowly evaporates and disappointed readers turn their backs on the journalist and their publication.

Is there anything to protect the hacks? Re-employ more subs? That will never happen.

Without the comfort blanket of a sub, they are on their own, a lonely place to be. Hopefully, management will give them as much help as possible, but those in charge have to care as well.

What is a worry is a conversation between two top newspapers executives in which they openly mocked those who were suitably concerned that a national newspaper had forgotten to put an apostrophe on their front page headline.

With this kind of attitude, things aren’t going to improve.

By the way, if there are any mistakes in this blog, I apologise, but I couldn’t find a sub to check it for me…