Publishers are rarely short of ideas – what many of them lack is the editorial resource to bring those ideas to life.
A new regular supplement? A one-off bookazine? A product launch? An ambition to publish 24/7 to extend their global digital presence? Or simply a desire to produce more content (or reduce editorial costs)?
To do any of those things usually means either increasing headcount or asking existing teams to work harder. One can be challenging in the current financial climate, the other risks burn out.
The result is that potentially profitable ideas remain stillborn.
But, there is a third way, which a growing number of publishers are taking advantage of – namely, outsourcing.
PA Media’s Page Production department, based in Howden, East Yorkshire, was set up over 20 years ago to provide a range of editorial services; initially print-centred but now focused equally on digital too.
Their services allow publishers to outsource some or all of their editorial functions. It could be one part of the process, for instance, subbing or design, or the whole project from content creation through to publication.
For one major news group, PA Media has put together a dedicated team of almost 40 journalists creating and publishing digital content to their various websites around the clock, a significant number of whom work remotely. For a leading magazine publisher, they provide subbing (headline writing, picture captioning, copy proofing) services for two of their popular consumer weeklies. For a regional publisher, they do full page production on their news and sports pages. They once created, from scratch, a biography of Olympic cyclist Bradley Wiggins in book form, within the space of two weeks.
In short, they can do as much or as little as a publisher wants.
“We work to fit in with publisher requirements,” says Chris Wiltshire, who has been head of page production at Howden since 2001, having previously had a 20-year career in the regional and national press as reporter and sub-editor.
Flexibility is their watchword. “It’s very much a question of finding out what the publisher wants. We provide as much or as little resource as the publisher requires, for as long as they require it. These requirements are sometimes cyclical – for four years, we handled all the subbing on a national newspaper before they decided to move it back in-house – if, and when, they decide to outsource again, then we’re ready to step back in.”
Taking advantage of group-wide expertise
PA Media’s Howden operation employs 65 people (up from nine when Chris first joined), primarily journalists, sub-editors and designers, but, importantly, they can draw on resource and expertise from across the wider PA Media group. PA’s philosophy is “stronger together”, which means that all parts of the group benefit from people and skillsets in other parts of the group. Since the group includes the now fully live video production team, the recently acquired social media agency Hydrogen, stock picture agency Alamy, digital marketing agency Sticky and, of course, their main news service, this means that there is very little that PA Media can’t offer in terms of editorial services.
This is particularly helpful when Chris is tasked with expanding his team to cater for a major new contract.
A few years ago, a news group outsourced a major part of their editorial operation to PA Media and Chris had to put together a team of 25 people in a five-week period – which he successfully did, via a combination of pulling in cross-group resource and relying on his little black book – a goldmine of editorial contacts.
Steeped in media
Chris Wiltshire is a lynchpin of the Howden operation. He has journalism in his blood. A passion for the media was ingrained early; his father was chief photographer at their local paper – the Weston Mercury – and, he recalls, “my brother and I used to leap into his van chasing fire engines and the like”. His neighbour and childhood friend, the late Jill Dando, was equally passionate. Her father was chief compositor at the Mercury and “at one point, me, my brother, my dad, Jill and her dad were all working on the local paper”. From there, Chris moved onto the Clevedon Mercury as sports editor, then the Kent Messenger, Petersfield Post and Kentish Times, before realising, on the day before his 30th birthday, his long-held ambition of being a journalist on a national paper by the age of 30. When the Express editor called him in to offer him the job of sports sub-editor, “it was the happiest birthday present ever”.
After 10 years at the Express, in 2001, Chris answered the call from PA Media to head up its embryonic Howden operation, and he’s been there ever since.
With his deep roots in the industry, what, I ask him, is the secret of publishing success?
“What the public wants,” he says, “is relevant, local news and personality-based reporting. When I first started at the Express, the Sunday paper had 10 to 15 slip pages for local content. Over the years, that gradually reduced to zero, but an overly broad approach does not serve newspapers well. The more local the better. And people are interested in people. Manchester United scoring a goal is moderately interesting, Marcus Rashford scoring a goal for Manchester United is much more so.”
What publishers expect when they outsource
Having worked in-house at a publisher and, now, at a provider of editorial services, what, I ask Chris, do publishers look for in service providers like PA Media?
1. Quality control
Publishers need to know that any editorial work they outsource will be done to a high standard.
“Because of our news wire heritage and the fact that publishers already rely on us as a trusted source of news, PA Media has a reputation for quality journalism. The emphasis on high standards stretches group-wide. Publishers trust the PA brand because PA trains its journalists well – anyone who joins our page production department leaves with an incredible range of skills.”
2. Bespoke service
“No two publishers are the same and each requires a bespoke service, which we strive to deliver.” The variations range from questions of house style (Guernsey Press uses single quote marks around speech, whereas the London Evening Standard uses double) to nuances of local reporting. For a number of years, Chris’ team provided services for the Irish Independent. George Bernard Shaw once described England and America as “two countries separated by a common language” and the same can be said about England and Ireland. Editorial – from headlines to body text – had to be written in an authentic Irish voice – not easy when you’re based in Yorkshire. Linguistic nuances like the distinction between ‘Garda’ and ‘Gardaí’ – need to be right if the news brand is to retain credibility.
3. Safe pair of hands
Publishers have responsibility for the content that appears on their pages, even if it has been outsourced, so it’s incumbent on service providers like PA Media to be thorough and mindful of legal pitfalls at all times. Chris is particularly proud of the fact that in the four years they handled the Irish Independent, they were never sued; quite an achievement given Dublin’s reputation as having a litigant-friendly legal system: “we have a brilliant track record of spotting potential legal problems.”
Publishers don’t like hassle. If they outsource a service, they don’t want to be told all the things they have to change in order to use that service. As far as a publisher is concerned, it is the service provider who needs to adapt to them, not vice versa and that is how PA Media works. A good example is in the use of design software, such as Adobe InDesign or Quark Publishing Platform, and the numerous iterations of each. PA Media needs to produce content in a form that can be easily ingested into the publisher’s system and, as such, has taken the decision to be able to provide content in all the commonly used software packages. “We aim to fit into publishers’ systems – we don’t expect them to have to adapt to ours,” assures Chris.
5. Breadth of services
Publishers want the content they create, or the content that is created on their behalf, to leap off the page / screen. They don’t want to be limited by resource issues at their service provider. The provision of audio-visual elements and social media linking are just two examples; publishers want their content and its dissemination to be able to take advantage of all available opportunities.
Essentially, says Chris, publishers need to know that there is no downside to outsourcing any of their editorial services to PA Media: “We always aim to improve the product, not simply to replicate it and, certainly, never to diminish it.”
Come and see what we do
What, I ask, is the process for a publisher taking advantage of PA Media’s Howden services?
“Our approach to bringing on new projects is straightforward. Firstly, we create a brief by establishing what the publisher needs – this could include a style guide; secondly, we work out the technical fit and what our IT teams need to do for us to integrate with the publisher’s systems; thirdly, agree a price and timescale and, fourthly, if necessary, decide what extra resource we need to bring in.
“We pride ourselves on being able to scale up very quickly to get new projects off the ground.
“If you’re a publisher with ambitions to expand your content offering, but are undecided on the best way of doing that, then come and see us – check out what we can offer, whether that’s new content, subbing or design skills or all of the above. If a publisher wants it, then we can be a one-stop shop for all their editorial and production needs. We have skilled and dedicated teams who take great pride in their work.
“They could be working for you very soon …”
Chris Wiltshire, Head of Page Production
PA Media, Howden, East Yorkshire, DN14 7AE
Tel: 07977 252164