Media Headliner: The man fighting for the future of regional press

By Ian Darby, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 27 November 2009 12:00AM

Analysts predict the imminent end of half the UK's local papers, but the NS's David Fordham has other ideas.

The prognosis for UK regional newspapers has been gloomier than for other industry sectors this year, with some forecasts predicting an ad revenue drop of 32 per cent for the medium.

Gloom that seemed to deepen last week when Enders Analysis reiterated its belief that around half of the UK's 1,300 newspapers will be out of business within five years.

Doom-mongers argue that regional press is not only facing the short-term impact of the recession but feeling more than most the longer-term structural impacts from the evolution of online media combined with a strong BBC.

But David Fordham, the president of the Newspaper Society and chief executive of the regional publisher Iliffe News & Media, is optimistic about the future. Of course, that's his job, but the whole tenor of his one-year term in office is positivity in the face of adversity.

Speaking to Campaign at the NS's smart Holborn offices, Fordham says: "The Enders Analysis stuff is outrageously negative and I will wager almost everything I have that its figure (that 50 per cent of titles will close) is absolutely wide of the mark. It's massively overstated - there might be some closures and some paid-for titles going free and some evening titles going weekly, but I'm confident the majority of those 1,300 titles will still be published in five years' time."

Fordham attempted to crank up the feelgood factor this week when he unveiled regional press' new planning tool. Named Locally Connected, it is a planning currency that will allow agencies to access combined audience data from local newspapers and their websites.

It's an ambitious project and represents a big investment from all the major regional publishers, with the eventual aim of increasing national advertiser revenue from the current 10 per cent of total local press ad revenue.

While Fordham concedes that 2009 has "been an extremely difficult time and we have had to do uncomfortable things to control costs in light of a downturn in revenues", the investment in Locally Connected seems to be a positive sign that this is a medium that sees a strong long-term future.

And Fordham takes the line that many of the trends impacting upon it are cyclical. For instance, he admits recruitment advertising is down 50 per cent but feels much of this will return because "that money hasn't gone anywhere else, there are just not the jobs to advertise".

In terms of online, he admits that regional press was "probably slower off the mark than we ought to have been" but says there has been significant investment from most groups in their online presence, and that there are now 1,500 websites affiliated to local newspapers. He says digital ad revenue at his own company represents 7 per cent of the total and, vitally, is growing.

Fordham predicts the majority of regional print titles are secure for "between ten and 20 years", leaving time for this online investment to pay dividends. And he is well placed to plan for this, having worked in regional press since joining the Cambridge Evening News marketing department in 1971. He's now the chief executive of the group that owns it - alongside almost 40 other local titles that distribute 1.2 million copies a week. Iliffe also owns the Channel TV ITV franchise.

Local press colleagues praise Fordham's impact on the body. Robert Ray, the NS marketing director, says: "He's a really positive and upbeat guy and has been hugely supportive of the NS as a whole and of our marketing activity."

For his part, Fordham remains motivated to take regional press through the hard times. He says: "It's a fascinating industry that has undergone colossal change in the past decade. We enjoy doing the creative things most of all but, in the past 12 months, there hasn't been the scope to do that - it's been about cutting costs, controlling overheads and ensuring survival. But we've seen the worst of that and revenues, at our business, have been broadly flat in the past five or six weeks."

Recent statements from large local newspaper groups including Johnston Press, which last week revealed that the rate of its ad revenue declines had slowed, indicate that there is hope for local newspapers. And, as well as the improved research that Locally Connected will supply, Fordham also provides a powerful emotional argument for regional press. He says that despite the cuts, it's an industry that employs 11,000 journalists and that "nobody compares to this on a local basis - not commercial local radio and not the BBC. Who else is going to report on local court proceedings? It's content that other media often excludes."

And it seems that government, of either hue, agrees. Last week, Ofcom announced proposed liberalisation of local cross-media ownership rules that would allow local platforms to be owned by the same group, potentially allowing for greater investment and co-operation between media.

Yet Fordham doesn't believe Ofcom has gone far enough as it would still block a single company owning local press, TV and radio in a region. He says: "In this day and age when there is such a wide choice from where to gather media, these proposed limitations are not realistic. If a local media owner abused its position, it would become apparent and alternative choices would come about."

For now, though, Fordham's optimistic vision will be focused on wooing advertisers rather than the regulators. The launch of Locally Connected can only help in this.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 56

Lives: Weekdays just outside Cambridge, weekends just outside Buckingham

Family: Wife, Anne. Three children (all boys!), Matt, Tom, Oli. Two grandchildren, Elena, aged four, and Ben, aged one

Most treasured possession: Thoughts and memories of loved ones and my London Marathon medal

Favourite local news story: Super Blues (Ipswich Town) win FA Cup (1978) from the East Anglian Daily Times

Interests outside work: Golf, photography, theatre, cooking

Motto: The Nike catchline: "Just do it"

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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