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Georgina Harvey - interview

Georgina Harvey, first female president of the Newspaper Society and managing director of Trinity Mirror’s Regional Newspapers, has spent much of the last year being very annoyed, frustrated, offended and sometimes downright angry. Ray Snoddy finds out why.

By Ray Snoddy

Harvey is in a state of perpetual annoyance at those who so casually write off the regional press and say it is a dying business.

She concedes that revenues are under threat, that some classified has migrated to the internet, that local and central government and the COI have been systematically pulling out of regional press advertising and that the regional newspaper business model is under “a certain pressure”.

Not exactly good news, but woe-betide anyone who suggests that as a result of all of that, the local and regional press is dying.

When that happens, Harvey gets very annoyed.

“That is the wrong conclusion. We are not dying, we are changing, we are adapting and we are evolving,” insists the Trinity Mirror executive in a firm voice that could easily pass for that of the actress Julie Walters.

‘Not Dying But Changing’ is obviously the Newspaper Society fighting slogan these days.

She has been called “mini-Sly” after her Trinity Mirror boss, Sly Bailey, but although both share a background in newspaper advertising sales followed by the magazine industry, Harvey is a formidable player in her own right.

No pleasing the City

The NS president is also annoyed at how difficult it is to get her story about the reality of the regional press past the short-termism of the City analysts.

Trinity Mirror’s results for 2010 saw a 17 per cent increase in operating profit, a nearly 14 per cent rise in pre-tax profits, an 18 per cent fall in net debt and earnings per share up by no less than 43 per cent. The profit margin at Trinity Regionals rose from 11.9 per cent to 15.6 per cent.

“The results were ahead of all expectations, yet our share price took a complete tumble because of difficult trading in January and February. That’s how short-term the market can be,” bemoans the NS president.

She was very annoyed indeed recently to hear a discussion on Radio 4 about how journalists should be trained in future.

In response to the suggestion that they should be sent to the regional press to learn their trade, Harvey couldn’t believe her ears when there came the facetious reply - What regional press?

“We have 87 publishers, 70 per cent reach in our markets and growing and we have more journalists on the ground, 10,000, more than any other medium by a long way, yet apparently we are dying,” complains Harvey.

“You have people stand up and say things that are not from a position of good knowledge,” says Harvey in a calmer voice.

Not all about costs

But she is equally frustrated by journalists who argue that consolidation in the regional press is just a device for squeezing profits out of a slowing dying business, slashing costs and sacking people often with scant regard for the editorial quality of the papers involved.

“Ray, how could you say that,” says Harvey with feeling, quoting from a MediaTel article.

The regional press, she explains, is relatively unconsolidated with its 87 owners, even though the four big groups account for more than half the total number of titles.

She turns her attention to Trinity Mirror’s purchase of the Guardian Media Group’s Manchester Evening News regional papers last year.

“Here is one fact. It gets my goat that it’s supposed to be all about taking out costs. There are more, slightly more, journalists sitting in the MEN newsrooms today than there were a year ago,” she insists.

It is hardly likely that that position is true for the industry as a whole.

In fact, almost as Harvey was speaking, the family–owned Midland News Association, publishers of Wolverhampton’s Express & Star, announced it was cutting 10 per cent of its 900-strong workforce to cut costs.

But the benefits of the MEN deal are obvious for Trinity Mirror – apart from bringing in £50 million in additional revenue and £5.7 million in operating profits.

By adding the Manchester titles to the Liverpool papers, Trinity can offer advertising deals across the whole of the old Granada television region.

She is greatly offended by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s “pet project”, based on the assumption that local television is desperately needed to improve the quality of local democracy.

“That’s what the regional press has been doing since God was a boy. I find that quite offensive actually. You would think that he (Hunt) would have that knowledge,” Harvey observes tartly.

She is convinced that the economics of local television do not stack up, but with the help of subsidies extracted from the BBC licence fee, local television could take some advertising away from local papers at least in the short term.

Challenging the doomsayers

As for what sounds like real anger, that is reserved for the prediction by Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis, 18 months ago that half the titles in the regional press would be gone within five years.

“Claire Enders had this ludicrous prediction that half of the industry titles, which would be 650 newspapers, would be closed by 2013,” says Harvey.

There have been closures, but they have been relatively small in number and mostly involved minor frees and certainly no large regional dailies.

“One of the first things I did as president was run a communications strategy and campaign to make sure that the prediction was publicly retracted (which it was, at the Society of Editors conference in Glasgow),” says Harvey.

Enders Analysis has irritated the NS president again more recently – though less seriously this time – with its suggestion that the regional press was being left behind as both television and national newspaper advertising come out of recession.

“That annoys me as well. I feel I am becoming Annoyed of Regional Press,” laughs Harvey who notes that television advertising and national newspapers historically both tend to come out of recession ahead of the local press and go in earlier.

“The doomsayers have got it wrong. Our revenue mix is changing so we are less dependent on classified ad revenues and we are more of a display-driven business,” Harvey emphasises.

At Trinity Mirror, her ad revenues are now 30 per cent classified and 45 per cent display. In the past, it would have been the other way around.

The logic of the greater emphasis on display means that better methods will have to be devised to make it easier for national advertisers to buy packages across the whole of the regional press.

Gunning for the Council freesheets

Apart from trying to change negative perceptions of the regional press, Harvey set her sights on campaigning against council newspapers which were in some cases competing directly for advertising with local titles.

“These papers had gardening supplements, property supplements. We heard of one local council newspaper that delayed printing for one day so that they could get the X Factor results in. They had nothing to do with services, community - nothing,” says Harvey.

In April, the co-ordinated campaign by the NS and its member companies finally succeeded.

The revised code of Recommended Practice On Local Authority Publicity was approved by both Houses of Parliament. It means that local councils cannot publish newspapers in direct competition to the established press. If councils continue to produce publications, they should not appear more than four times a year and contain only material directly related to council services.

The effect has been immediate with a number of councils signing advertising deals with their local newspapers.

The beneficiaries have included Trinity Mirror’s Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, which signed a six-year deal with the local council to carry statutory notices and recruitment ads.

Until now, they had been carried exclusively in the council’s fortnightly newspaper H&F News.

Harvey does accept that some of the negative impressions about the regional press may have been “slightly of our own making” because when you lobby, you have to create a sense of urgency and impending crisis in order to get change.

And not all the critics have been ill-informed outsiders.

In a chapter in a new book The Internet and Journalism Today – Face The Future, Neil Fowler, former editor of the Western Mail and The Journal Newcastle argues that the regional newspaper industry has never been the most innovative of business sectors and has actually been in slow decline since the 1950s.

Strong digital presence

Fowler, a Guardian Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford goes on to argue that as far as the internet is concerned, there remains “no consensus on what the optimum model for regional and local newspapers, or news organisations as they should be called now, is for the future.”

The Harvey response?

“It’s a yes and a no. Neil is fundamentally misunderstanding that we as a regional media entered this space (digital) a lot earlier than national media,” says the Trinity Mirror executive who adds that 18 per cent of her profits came from digital last year.

The company has a whole raft of specialist digital recruitment businesses such as The Career Engineer and SecsintheCity, a digital business boosted last year by the acquisition of the 50 per cent of Fish4 it did not already own.

Harvey concedes however that there might be some opportunities to charge online for some very local sport and business content and trials are on the way, but general news will remain freely available.

“I have modelled it every way and we would lose revenue if we put our general news content behind a paywall,” says Harvey, who adds that the Times trial shows “there is a near zero propensity for people to pay for general news content”.

But as she approaches the end of her year-long presidency, what would make Georgina Harvey less annoyed, frustrated, offended and angry?

Very simple.

“If we get our heads up and we start communicating in a more positive way about the strength of the media we have got. I hope to some extent I have made inroads into getting people to understand that we are not dying, we are changing and that there is a healthy future for the regional media,” says the optimistic and cheerful Chigwell-born Georgina Harvey.