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InPublishing Magazine 01/11/2008

InPublishing Magazine Nov/Dec 2008

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No more City Finals?

Producing multiple editions of daily and evening papers was once the norm. No longer. With some notable exceptions, most publishers are moving remorselessly towards single editions. Peter Sands tracks the demise of editionising.

When I edited the Northern Echo in the early 1990s, we published six different editions every morning. It was a policy rarely challenged by the journalists, even though it caused them (newsdesk and subs in particular) considerable grief.

The managing director and accountants used to look longingly at our fourteen district offices from time to time, but even they appreciated that editionising was the only way the paper could thrive as a regional beast.

The principle was simple, even if implementing it wasn’t.

The Northern Echo’s head office was, and still is, in Darlington. It is one of the few morning papers not to be city-based. If it served only the town, and its smaller surrounding communities, would it be viable? As Harold Evans, one of my illustrious predecessors, had concluded, the Echo could really only survive as a regional title. There simply wasn’t enough revenue or readers in South Durham. But what was the region? Tyneside to the north and Teesside to the east were both gritty and industrial with a passionate football following – but they had little else in common. County Durham itself was a mix of former mining towns and small semi-rural communities. To the south, we ventured through the Yorkshire moors to the city of York, to the west the dales took us to the Pennines. Nothing bound this disparate area together other than a vague, and increasingly diluted, sense of North-Easterness.

We tried to reach this diverse audience with six different editions that included "slip" pages of local news, which changed for every geographical area, and "regional" pages which stayed throughout. In Darlington, where the paper sold the most copies and where the sister evening paper had been closed down, there could be as many as ten broadsheet change pages each morning.

Retrenchment

Since those days, the Echo has gradually closed its district offices and recently it reduced its editions to two. The editor, Peter Barron, says that the debate about the structure has gone on during the 28 years he has worked there.

"Many readers have complained that they feel the complexity of the current editions works against them. They may live on Teesside but have grown up in Darlington and want to know what's happening in both areas," he explains.

"By simplifying the editions, and increasing the number of pages, we can ease those frustrations."

The Echo runs through Barron’s veins and he is a huge champion of the North-East and its people, so few would argue against him.

Still at it

Adrian Faber at the Express & Star in Wolverhampton, however, takes a different tack. He persists with an editionising policy that has helped maintain his paper’s position as the best selling regional evening in the country. It has eight editions (First; Kidderminster; Dudley; Stafford; Cannock & Lichfield; Walsall; Sandwell and City Final) which run from a first deadline of 11am to 2.30pm. The paper changes the front and a substantial number of inside pages each issue.

Steve Dyson, editor of the Birmingham Mail, takes yet another approach. This year, he dropped the paper’s geographical editions, arguing that people might work in one part of the city but live in another so pick up the wrong issue. Instead, he has introduced a weekly Birmingham Mail Extra that contains local news, is published in four editions and delivered free to 180,000 households. It means people get the news specifically relevant to them. If it works, he is looking to add further editions next year.

Elsewhere though, editions have been lost and not replaced with a weekly digest edition or with anything else … because the real reason is to save costs in production, time on the press and in newsprint.

Just not economic

Some editors who would like to persist with their editions are also severely restricted by their newsroom numbers. Before the current economic turmoil, editors were not in a position to whistle down a black hole and produce legions of good journalists. Now it will be a minor miracle if they can maintain their current staffing level. So something clearly has to give … and that something includes editionising. There is clearly a tipping point where the staff simply becomes too small to make it work. I came across this recently at an evening paper with a smallish circulation that produced three editions each day. A huge amount of resource was devoted to reprocessing – ripping out pages, remaking them and rewriting stories with different local angles. As editorial resources contracted, the editor and his staff found themselves firefighting to turn out the editions while the depth of the paper was left exposed. The resources were spread too thinly and the paper, beyond the first few pages, became filled with reactive material. That energy could have been channelled into other more rewarding areas, such as sending the journalists out to find real stories.

Apart from editionising for geographical reasons, evening papers also traditionally editionised for time. A city final could be printed as late as 3pm, giving the readers a substantial helping of that day’s news, the early racing results or the lunchtime FA Cup draw. When I was training in the North-East, the Evening Chronicle reporters would phone that morning’s court copy from magistrates - not just the big crown court stuff - at 11am and it would get in. As a chief sub of the late Evening Despatch in Darlington, I recall replating for the verdict in a murder trial that finished at 4pm. There are one or two papers, including the Express & Star and Birmingham Mail, still doing this. The Mail has four timed editions – the last being the Central City Final that prints at 1.45pm.

But at most evening titles, the circulation manager’s argument for footfall has stopped all of that. Initially, the papers had to make sure they were available for the lunchtime trade. Now they need to be out even earlier. Last week I heard the argument that mothers, who dropped their children at school and then went shopping, would buy the paper if it was in the supermarkets early enough.

An ‘evening’ paper?

Some former evening newspapers now print their single edition overnight. Often this is due to the presses being closed and papers being printed some distance away. In some cases, where there is both a morning and traditional evening produced by the same centre, there have been occasions when the paper published later has been put to bed first.

Other evenings continue to produce two or three live pages very early in the morning. They have a team of subs who come in at 6.30am, bust a gut to get the edition out and then twiddle their thumbs for the rest of their shift, growing increasingly exasperated by the newsdesk’s attempts at copyflow. None of this really makes much sense.

If the circulation manager’s argument to extend the shelf-life of the evening titles is the right one, then they at least need to become genuine morning newspapers, with an emphasis on good reads, analysis, interpretation and polished production. Gathering the content should start later in the day and the pages should be produced well into the evening. The sales figures tell us that turning out a paper, that purports to be a quick-reacting evening, some sixteen hours before it hits the streets, just doesn’t wash with the readers.

National newspapers now tend to editionise largely for sport, mainly football, and for revision. Are regional and local daily newspapers about to follow their lead and kill off editionising altogether? With some notable exceptions, it seems inevitable.

As one senior evening newspaper executive told me: "Some evening newspapers still have editions. The public may appreciate having more local content but figures in terms of sales, distribution costs and any added advertising make editionising unviable. In the present climate, it is only a matter of time before they all disappear."

Marshalling resources

The bottom line is that effective editionising requires big staffing, or a mass of well-trained and organised correspondents, and not many daily papers are blessed with either. If newspapers want their journalists to write for the web, shoot video, create podcasts and still produce compelling content for the print version then some sacred cows have to be slaughtered. One is the notion of being a "paper of record", another is inevitably the policy of changing page after page just so that communities get a cursory mention. In my editing days, any such suggestion would have sent a shudder down my spine and a rush of blood to the cheeks. Now, I would put all my resources into producing the best possible newspaper. I would certainly reduce the time spent on processing and get the reporters out to find genuinely good cross-border reads. There would still be room for local stories of course – but just the interesting ones. The website, as the micro editions of the Teesside Gazette and the Carolina paper Bluffton Today demonstrate, would then be the vehicle for community news.

There can be little doubt that newspapers are facing their toughest challenge yet. Philip Meyer’s prediction that they will disappear in the first quarter of 2043, seems positively optimistic when compared with some recent warnings. In October, the Guardian’s director of digital media, Emily Bell, said that broadcasters, national and regional media were in the middle of a systemic collapse in advertising and not a cyclical downturn. In presenting what she called an "in extremis gloomy vision", she said as many as five national newspapers could fold within two years and some areas of the regional press faced complete market failure. Even if she is only half-right, it is clear that daily and evening newspapers need an urgent and radical rethink on how they use their resources. And some of the models that served them well in the past, including multiple editions, must come under very close scrutiny. Most of today’s editors, if they haven’t done so already, are concluding that editionising is now an expensive luxury. But in doing so, they also recognise that its demise is another milestone in their newspaper’s decline.

About Peter Sands
(Details last updated: 25 April 2013)

Peter Sands is a newspaper consultant and designer. He has redesigned 85 titles, assisted publishers in changing their businesses and runs courses in all editorial disciplines. From 1989 to 1993 he was editor of the Northern Echo.

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