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Punching above its weight

The 12,683 circulation Chorley and Leyland Guardian is a regional press success story. Its circulation has remained fairly stable for the last few years and it even recorded a slight increase last year! Editor Chris Maguire outlines the strategies he employs to ensure the paper remains a central part of the Chorley community.

By Chris Maguire

The other day, I dropped my daughter off at her football training when another dad rushed over and promptly punched me on the arm.

It was a playful punch but the message was clear.

“That’s for not putting my daughter’s name in the (Chorley and Leyland) Guardian when she scored her first ever goal,” he said.

At about the same time, I received a reader’s letter complaining about the imminent arrival of a major new pub chain into Leyland.

“As we know, they serve cheap alcohol,” penned the writer, “which encourages binge drinking and other associated alcohol-related issues, such as violence and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.”

I’m not sure the pub industry can be blamed for a rise in STDs but the two very different incidents highlight the same point – newspapers are an essential part of our community but only if they are relevant and the readers feel able to turn to them.

This is the ethos of the 140-year-old Chorley and Leyland Guardian, a weekly paper in Lancashire with a team of four hard-working reporters and a loyal readership of 12,683.

In the second half of 2010, we were lucky enough to be one of only 13 fully paid-for weekly titles in England and Scotland to enjoy a sales rise.

That’s a depressing statistic when you think that, according to the Newspaper Society’s latest figures, there are 1,200 regional and local newspapers in the UK.

If the pessimists are to be believed, then newspapers are doomed anyway but if we accept it as a fait accompli, then we’ll effectively be the authors of our own misfortune.

So how do newspapers protect – or even grow – their audience at a time of falling advertising revenues, rising newsprint costs and fewer staff?

Sadly, I don’t have a secret panacea, but before looking at possible solutions, we have to understand the problems.

Certainly it’s hard to imagine an industry that has been dealt a tougher set of cards in recent years than the newspaper sector.

The fall in revenues is well documented as traditional property and motors advertisers feel the credit crunch squeeze, with the public sector now sharing the pain.

Rising newsprint costs have put greater pressure on pagination sizes and the entire industry has had to make some very tough decisions.

It’s easy to get so sucked into the ‘we’re all doomed’ predictions that you lose sight of the fact that the UK’s local press continues to be read by 38 million people a week.

In essence, if weekly newspapers only focus on what they can’t do, they’ll lose sight of what they can, which is change the lives of their readers.

Richard Parsons is the Director of Training of News Associates, which was named in December 2010 at the UK’s top ranked NCTJ journalism college.

A long journalistic career saw him work as the editor of the Buckinghamshire Advertiser, the Uxbridge Gazette and editor-in-chief of the Surrey Herald, Informer and Leader Series.

News Associates offer fast-track training courses in journalism and Parsons is in a good position to comment on the industry as he is in regular contact with weekly editors.

He said: “Weekly newspapers remain the bedrock of our communities but people won’t buy their Guardian, Courier, Star or Citizen if they don’t think they’re getting value for money or they feel they can get the same information elsewhere.

“Reporters traditionally only used to write, they now have to be multi-skilled. Writing, uploading to the website, basic design skills and even taking photos are all part of the job description for today’s generation of reporter.

“The catalyst for getting the news out there has changed with the emergence of websites, social media and apps but the need for news gatherers has never been more evident.

“Newspapers have changed so we’ve had to adapt our courses accordingly. What editors tell me is that as well as having the obvious skills like shorthand and law, our students have to be ‘work ready’ when they start a job.

“That’s why a big part of our course is for our students to spend their Fridays on work placements in newspapers.

“In my experience, it’s the papers that are the most forward-thinking that appear to be the most successful.”

My 10-point guide

Obviously there is no magic wand, but, based on what has proved successful at the Chorley and Leyland Guardian, here are my ten tips:

1. One team, one paper

My reporters are brilliant but because newspaper departments aren’t necessarily under the same roof, there’s a danger that editorial, advertising, promotions, newspaper sales all operate in isolation. In tough economic times, that can’t be allowed to happen. A strong editorial paper makes it easier for advertising to sell into and, conversely, a strong commercial performance allows you to grow the size of the page. Availability of sales, early delivery of papers and effective promotions are equally vital.

2. Uniqueness

Weekly newspapers have to have a Unique Selling Point (USP). The rise of social media, community websites and press offices mean that newspapers don’t have a monopoly on breaking news, property, motors, sport etc. We recently produced a 96-page paper that was packed with 137 stories and 182 pictures, 107 of which were submitted. The paper is like a menu, with a range of dishes under the headings of news, sport, property, motors, columnists, nostalgia, restaurant review, movie review, business, letters etc. Readers can pick and choose but we work on the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

3. If you can’t be first, be the best

Sam Holliday, now editor of the Bath Chronicle, told me that when he was at the Tamworth Herald, their mantra was, “If you can’t be first with the news, be the best.” It’s one I’ve copied. One paper that sold well for us recently had a front page story about a well known Chorley woman who was tragically knocked down and killed as she walked to the shops. Next to a police-issue photograph of her was the headline: ‘Killed crossing a road’. We weren’t first with the news but I believe we were the best because of the quality of the writing and the layout of the page. Chorley FC recently won promotion and we produced an eight-page supplement of their season, detailing every one of the 59 games they played. Nobody else did that.

4. Be relevant to your readers

If there’s an accident in Chorley, people expect to read about it in the Guardian. A mum recently bought five copies of the paper because we included a picture of her daughter after she swam 2,000 metres. If somebody takes the time to send in a picture, then the least we can do is take the time to publish it.

5. Treat every page as a front page

When he was editor of the Western Daily Press, Terry Manners told me to “treat every page as if it’s a page 1”. We don’t always get it right, but that’s the aim.

6. Have a high profile

The Guardian is unashamedly a newspaper that campaigns for its readers. When Chorley FC was struggling, we raised £17k through our Save Our Magpies campaign. When Chorley schoolgirl Jessica Knight was stabbed we helped raise £20k for her family. When Chorley’s Mayor was diagnosed with terminal cancer we raised £54,000 for four cancer charities. One year, staff dressed up as Christmas characters for Children in Need. For Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, we joined forces with Lancashire Age Concern to stage a public screening of the ceremony at the local theatre so people didn’t have to be on their own. Such initiatives keep us in the public eye and enable us to punch above our weight.

7. Think outside the box

The industry is changing and we have to change with it in order to meet the needs of our readers. For example, we joined forces with a local company to launch an iPhone app. We’ve started to use social media more effectively, in terms of finding news and promoting ourselves. We’ve joined forces with Manchester-based journalism college News Associates to offer bespoke work placements one day a week to a limited number of students. We ask readers to send us photographs from events that we’re not able to attend, including an increasing number of sports matches.

8. Grow total audience

A vibrant website or a vibrant newspaper? It should never be one or the other but unless you have a website paywall, you’re effectively giving away your content for free. Websites and apps need to drive readers to the printed product and vice versa. Mail Online is a huge success story and the Daily Mail has maintained its sales. This is because both products cater for different audiences. Weekly newspapers don’t have the same level of resource but the principle remains the same.

9. Understand social media

We know what Facebook and Twitter are but do we really understand what social media means and its potential benefits? I have to admit I didn’t but I’m learning. The biggest lesson of all is that, when used correctly, social media can make the running of a weekly newspaper easier. Google Alerts monitor the web for key words; Facebook makes it relatively simple to find people; Twitter provides a stream of potential stories and feedback; and LinkedIn puts you in touch with business leaders. I take my inspiration from Ivy Bean, who became the world’s oldest user of Facebook and Twitter at the age of 102!

10. Have an edge

Newspapers mustn’t lose sight of their key purpose – provide news. A sat nav won’t work if you don’t know where you’re going. Similarly an iPad or 4,000 Facebook friends can help a reporter but it can’t write a story. Newspapers are there to inform. We use our fair share of press releases but we still challenge them. Weekly newspapers mustn’t be afraid to show their teeth. If we don’t hold organisations to account and name and shame wrong-doers we lose our edge - and that is start of a very slippery slope.