The daily Torquay Express will become a weekly product from July 21 in what could be a new tide of conversions. Steve Dyson discovers how this has been successful for one newspaper – and wonders who might be next.
Ask editor Sam Holliday whether ‘going weekly’ has worked for his Bath Chronicle and the answer is emphatic.
“In our case, it saved the paper. We’re producing a much better product as a result. It’s well received by the community, sells more and we make more money.”
The paper changed from its daily format in September 2007, and at the time, there was wide speculation that it would be the first of many weekly conversions.
Holliday recalls: “I was kind of thinking we’d do it and then more would follow. But on the day we decided, September 27 2007, someone switched the economy off, and people just didn’t want to gamble in the economic turmoil of 2008 and 2009.”
There were a couple of others – the Reading Evening Post went weekly in June 2009 and then the Birmingham Post at the end of that year.
But these conversions were complicated by either part-free or huge bulk business models that have yet to be proven – whereas Bath stands out as a success in terms of sales and profitability after nearly four years.
Holliday is honest about the tough early months, but adamant that the paper would have closed if it had not gone weekly.
“The recession meant we didn’t make mega bucks initially, yet we now look back and say the conversion was an accident of timing that saved the paper. You see, we were only making a tiny profit as a daily, and we were the smallest daily in the country.
“Had we then suffered the 10%-plus revenue falls the recession brought, I really think we’d have been out of business. As a daily, Bath was never really in the money. Now we’re comparable with other big weekly centres.”
Going weekly meant publisher Northcliffe saved a fortune on editorial staff costs in Bath, now around 40% of what they were as a daily, plus huge printing and distribution savings.
This, of course, was offset by what the paper lost in terms of six days worth of cover prices, as opposed to one purchase a week.
But with advertising – the largest revenue stream for regionals – Holliday has more good news: “We don’t think we lost any advertising revenue from going weekly.
“OK, you don’t get six page one solus ads a week, but to be honest, those were hard to sell anyway, especially on low circulation Mondays, with advertisers saying they’d had no response.
“With the weekly model, we can honestly tell major advertisers like estate agents and motor dealers that more people read their ads than when we were a daily, and so we didn’t drop any rates.”
The Sunday Times syndrome
The Bath Chronicle is not quite the mammoth size Holliday had once imagined, after research informed him that readers were put off by too many pages.
“Readers initially found the weekly was too big… no one could find anything. That stopped us from getting too carried away, as at one stage I’d talked about 300-plus pages.
“Readers thought they were getting less, saying things like ‘I’m throwing away more than I’m reading,’ like the Sunday Times syndrome.”
The weekly is now a regular average of 216 pages – around five times the size it had been as a daily – and this size has proved popular.
Holliday says: “Our average daily sale was just over 12,000, with our highest on jobs and property days about 14,000 to 15,000, so that was as many as we could really hope to sell as a weekly.
“But in the first full ABC period, we sold 20,000 a week – and four years later we’re still selling an average of more than 17,000.
“We’ve lost about five per cent each year since – the industry average – but we’re still selling nearly 50% more than our average daily sale.”
Is going weekly the answer for other small dailies – can they sell more copies, make more profits from the savings and still remain a quality publication that means something in the community?
Here, Holliday warns off financial directors totting up potential savings: “The luxury I had was that all the serious staffing cuts that took place shortly after we went weekly had not yet happened.
“Yes, we lost a chunk of staff, but we still had a good size left. Everybody else has lost 20% or 30% in the recession, so there’s a lot less staff for them to lose going weekly.”
Overall, however, Holliday feels that the Bath Chronicle’s weekly conversion could be a template for other dailies considering the change, and Torquay Express editor Andy Phelan would have talked to him before announcing his paper’s change this month.
He says: “What we did was radical in a very conservative city, and I say that if you can get away with it in Bath, people can get away with it anywhere.
“It’s an historic city, and people don’t like their history being messed with, but by and large, people still want the Bath Chronicle now it’s a weekly.
“With readers, I was very upfront about our changes and published all critical letters, responding directly to each one.
“Some said they would never buy the paper again, but the funny thing is, those same people are still writing letters, so they’re obviously still readers!
“Readers’ perception is that we’re a more forward-looking newspaper now – outgoing, buzzing, out there doing things.
“We were like a run-down village church – everybody loved it and didn’t want it changing but nobody attended; then there’s a new, young, enthusiastic vicar and people flooded back.
“The key is to make it a good paper. We went from a hard-working but pretty ordinary daily to a thumping big weekly, winning both the Newspaper Society’s Newspaper of the Year and Best Designed Newspaper in 2008/9, and then the South West Weekly Newspaper of the Year.
“Suddenly we were making waves having previously barely scratched the surface.
Website updated daily
“Another key is the website: as a weekly, this is a strength because you have daily uploads which don’t compete with the paper.”
Holliday proudly reports more than 150,000 unique visitors to www.thisisbath.co.uk this May, viewing more than 950,000 pages.
“The Chronicle is like the big, Sunday paper, and the website is our daily, and the platforms complement each other really well.
“This helped people get used to the weekly because they could still get daily news that mattered on the web – like local election results and other up-to-the-minute news.”
And so, apart from the Torquay Express, does he know of other small dailies about to follow the Bath Chronicle’s weekly conversion?
Holliday – with 28 years experience at Northcliffe’s big weekly papers since starting as a junior reporter on his hometown Tamworth Herald in 1983 – is careful with his answer, but read between the lines.
“We were first and it’s only been a trickle following us to date, but this may accelerate.
“The number of people visiting to see what we’ve done is in double figures – with scores more phoning, emailing and asking for copies, so it’s definitely something people are looking at.
“Look, some small dailies may well survive, but it’s got to be an option for others. Every editor of a small circulation daily is thinking about it because it’s out there – we’ve done it and it’s worked.
“I remember saying it may be a solution, but not the solution, just one of many worth looking at.
“The other options are to drop a day – say Saturday – or to go twice a week. But in my view, this is just messing around on a path heading towards going weekly.”
Bath Chronicle - Before and After
As a daily…
* Pagination: 32 pages on Mondays, up to 48 pages on later weekdays
* Cover price: 35p weekdays, 40p Saturdays
* Circulation: averaging 12,200 daily – up to 14 to 15,000 on later weekdays
* Editorial staff: “somewhere in the late 30s”
As a weekly…
* Pagination: first edition was 248 pages and it’s been as high as 284. It now averages 216 pages – a main book of 112 and a 104 page property section
* Cover price: 30p for the first month after launch, 60p thereafter, rising over three years to 75p today
* Circulation: 17,500
* Editorial staff: 14
Who will be next?
Plummeting public sector advertising, shrinking circulations and spiralling newsprint costs have led to speculation that more declining daily newspapers could soon be ‘going weekly’.
Steve Auckland, the new managing director of Northcliffe Media, has made it clear that reducing the number of days on which some loss-making titles published was part of his strategy.
In March this year, he outlined his early thoughts to the Guardian: “If you have stacks of titles and lots of loss-makers and lots publishing six days a week and not making money, you have to look at the portfolio.
“We have to look at the number of titles and frequency of publishing. If [local publishing chiefs] want to change the cover price or say that publishing on one day, or two, or staying at six is most profitable, then I want them to have that flexibility."
Just three months later, Northcliffe revealed that the Torquay Express would be going weekly – and industry insiders say this is likely to be the first of several frequency changes to be announced in the near future.
Northcliffe is not alone: one editor of a small northern daily, who must remain nameless, told me that newsprint price rises pushed the business right to the edge of making the ‘weekly decision’ for 2011.
“It’s only a matter of time because otherwise we will literally lose money,” he said.
And the managing director of an independent publisher – whom I also agreed not to name – told me: “12,000 sales is the profit-and-loss precipice for dailies, and we think we’ve got a few years to go before we reach that.
“But we’re already looking at the option because we’re in the teens and once we hit 12,000, will make no money as a daily.”
Several newspapers are already at or near that 12,000 figure, but as the Torquay Express, which sold 21,000+ as a daily shows, publishers may decide to make the conversion early while they still have some critical mass.
Tipping points will obviously depend on specific marketplaces and economies of scale, but the weekly option is certainly staring the 15 smallest daily papers in Britain in the face.
The regional dailies arguably facing the weekly option are: Scarborough Evening News (published by Johnston Press) – ABC April 2011: 11,462; Burton Mail (Iliffe) - 12,472; Worcester News (Newsquest) - 14,616; North West Evening Mail, Barrow (CN Group) - 14,772; Hartlepool Mail (Johnston Press) - 14,853; Oldham Evening Chronicle (Hirst Kidd and Rennie) - 15,273; Shields Gazette (Johnston) - 15,286; Evening Star, Ipswich (Archant) - 15,408; Peterborough Evening Telegraph (Johnston) - 15,506; Scunthorpe Telegraph (Northcliffe) - 16,084; Halifax Evening Courier (Johnston) - 16,351; Gloucestershire Echo (Northcliffe) - 16,380; Northampton Chronicle & Echo (Johnston) - 16,678; Express & Echo, Exeter (Northcliffe) - 17,102; Evening Gazette, Colchester (Newsquest) - 17,186.
The Liverpool Daily Post (Trinity Mirror) only sells 8,868, but has a much bigger sister in the Daily Post (Wales) which complicates its future strategy.
In Scotland, the Paisley Daily Express (Trinity Mirror), selling 7,726, and the Greenock Telegraph (Clyde & Forth Press), selling 14,720, might also be seen as ripe for weekly conversion, although the local marketplace and low paginations provide different business models. The same can be said for the Guernsey Press & Star (Claverley Group), selling 15,232.