There is a crisis of leadership in the regional press, says Steve Dyson. How can the regional newspaper industry hope to recover unless the executives who lead it show confidence in their own products? Where are the leaders, where are the visionaries?
Imagine a Mars Bar, I mean a really good Mars Bar, clearly the best ever tasted, with the finest ingredients, one that could easily hook the consumer.
Now, imagine the sales trend for this modern Mars Bar if there was NO advertising for it, if it had a sparse and mainly outdated brand presence, owners who rarely talked it up, who were perceived to be almost ashamed of what they produced.
And now (bear with me, please) imagine if those owners started producing a new Mars Bar tablet, one that gave instant flavour gratification without the need to buy, bite or chew the actual chocolate bar.
Finally, imagine that these Mars Bar tablets were given away en masse, for nothing, to anyone who asked for them, whenever they desired that instant experience of “milk chocolate, soft nougat and a great tasting caramel centre”.
This scenario, I suggest, is a metaphor for the one in which the majority of local and regional newspapers in Britain find themselves.
The new media reality
Yes, regional newsrooms should break live news that is in the public domain instantly on the web, following this up with insight and analysis in print.
Of course, those same newsrooms should devote some enthusiastic resource to trialling hyper-local blogging, developing micro websites and encouraging 'citizen journalism'.
And they should sanction dabbles at Twitter and Facebook and the latest social media tricks to reach new audiences.
We all know and accept that this expanding and irreversible new media means that journalism has changed, is still transforming and that the financial dynamics of the industry have to be reinvented.
But that does not mean local and regional newspapers are dead, or that they should not break true exclusives that are jealously kept off the web until the traditional product has had time to sell.
The web can and should be used to promote such journalism, teasing selected print content online and working in tandem, uploading just before everyone else catches up.
Because it's about time the beleaguered regional press industry walked a bit taller and with a bit more traditional print swagger than it currently does.
A bit like that quality Mars Bar, the newspapers toiled over will only be perceived as shining products if those who produce and own them start feeling good about themselves and shout about that confidence.
This sentiment was aired by Peter Sands, the former Northern Echo editor who has become one of the country's top regional media gurus, when responding to news that this year's Regional Press Awards were cancelled.
Sands, writing on his www.sandsmediaservices.blogspot.com blog, said: "The great and the good of national newspaper journalism will be applauded at a glitzy dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel later this month [March 23]... a celebration of a vintage year for British journalism.
“But for their regional cousins there will not even be a beer and bowl of peanuts in the backroom of the Cheshire Cheese. After 22 years, the Regional Press Awards have been ‘rested’ – a decision that indicates the gulf that appears to be growing between national and regional papers.
“If the regional press doesn't celebrate the excellence that runs through its newspapers, applaud the journalists who go that extra yard every day, recognise the editors who invest in off-diary work and innovation… then who will?”
Sands refers here to the lack of support and interest in regional awards held nationally, but a similar sentiment could be evoked if we surveyed what each publisher did for its own titles.
No celebrations please, we’re in decline
My own recent experience was at Trinity Mirror where Neil Benson, the thoughtful and committed editorial director of the regionals division, has long believed in rewarding talent.
Yet even he shelved the company’s internal newspaper awards in 2008 and 2009, and invoked a three-line whip on not entering any others last year, citing the cost of travelling and lunch if anyone, God forbid, was shortlisted for honours.
In December 2009, the Birmingham Mail won Regional Newspaper of the Year in the Plain English Campaign Awards, something you do not enter yourself but are selected for.
There was no note from anyone at Canary Wharf expressing even the simplest “well done” to staff, (although, in fairness, the regional managing director did allow train fares and a claim for Champagne for the five lunch spaces paid for by organisers).
This boardroom theme of “not a time to celebrate” was one repeated across most regionals, to the unnecessary detriment of staff morale.
It’s not just awards: the same gut wrench would be felt if you surveyed the amount regional publishers spent last year on real research into reader habits or, perhaps more importantly, on replacement A-boards.
Or if you compared the gulf in the respective marketing budgets between the Daily Mail and the entire amount spent on all Northcliffe’s regionals.
Cut-price strategies can work
The truth is, it doesn’t even cost that much to engage with readers and to ‘own’ the areas you serve in the regional press.
Simple tactics like holding a public debate on burning issues such as a proposed hospital closure can create headlines on local TV and radio for nothing more than physical effort and an urn of tea.
Panel members for and against such issues, chaired by the newspaper’s editor, free hot drinks for all who attend, a spread in the next day’s paper... it’s not rocket science.
Thankfully, some editors still do this, but there is little enthusiasm from the senior bosses for such initiatives, unless allied to a ‘sponsored’ debate of a commercial nature, an experience confirmed by editors I’ve spoken to.
The result? Not enough editors bother, and countless major opportunities to shout about regional newspapers’ crucial democratic role at the time you need them most are lost.
It’s all about costs
In fact, the word from the same serving editors is that bosses are so fully distracted by cost savings, they are rarely even bothering to review the newspapers they publish, unless an advertiser is offended.
It was with this in mind that I launched the ‘Dyson at Large’ blog on www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk in January, a weekly attempt to highlight the best regional products and to prompt those missing a trick to step up a gear.
It’s the same belief in quality that drives Holdthefrontpage publisher Paul Linford. He told me: “The recession brought with it many prophecies of doom about the future of the regional press, most infamously Claire Enders’ prediction that 650 of the UK’s 1,300 regional and local titles would close by 2013.
“Although there have been closures, these have been mainly concentrated in the weekly free newspaper sector in areas where a free title was duplicating a paid-for, and have thus far been nothing like on the scale that Enders and others had predicted.
“We see it as our role to give our readers a fully-rounded picture of what is going on in the industry, and as such we certainly didn’t ignore all those job loss and closure stories last year.
“But we continued to cover the many good things that go on in the regional press – the journalists’ charity efforts, the various regional awards schemes which continue to run, and most of all the continued investment in good journalism by titles such as the Derby Telegraph, which recently sent a reporter to Switzerland to track down a missing sex offender.”
This sort of championing activity alone throughout the industry by each and every publisher would be another way of driving their own performance and future development at no cost, other than having to actually read and remark on the ink on paper that costs millions to produce.
Other regional media pundits share my views that it is time to invoke this long-lost buoyancy again.
Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, told me: “It is very debilitating to be continually cutting and retreating. The time really has come to think about growing and rebuilding, albeit going about things a bit differently.
“If you look at the last 18 months – the worst recession for the regional media – there is still plenty of evidence of new newspaper and website launches, proving there is room for growth.
“It’s so important that people who run regional newspapers rediscover this vision and belief in the future of the industry because, without that, it’s very difficult to lead staff forward.
“If they don’t have that belief they should sell their publications to someone who does because they are otherwise on a hiding to nothing.”
Jon Slattery, who independently blogs at www.jonslattery.blogspot.com on the media, told me: "There is a crisis in confidence in the regional press, and some managers don't believe the good times are ever going to come back.
“They think advertising has been lost to the internet for ever and that sales will continue to fall. All the talk is of 'managing decline'.
"This is bound to have a knock-on effect on the people around them and the feeling that those employed in the regional press are working in an industry in its death throes.
“Job cuts and petty savings all sap the morale of people used to working long, unsocial hours not for the money but for the pride and passion they have for their jobs and their papers.
"The industry is desperately in need of some visionaries who can talk up the importance of local journalism, develop new media in all its forms and offer staff a future that rewards their enthusiasm.
“Marketing and backing the Regional Press Awards should be part of that and help create a feeling that the industry is prepared to fight back after suffering such a deep recession."
It is these notes from the experts who care about the regional media that I leave with the powers-that-be at Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe, Newsquest et al to consider.
Can you guys and gals in the lofty boardrooms not see that you are widely deemed to be underplaying your own industry?
The challenge for you today is the same one you used to pose for new editors: Step up to the mark and lead your newsrooms with self-belief and vitality, or else curl up and die.
The NUJ has stepped in to revive the Regional Press Awards. For more information, see www.nujregionalpressawards.co.uk