FORUM: Is the NPA still of value to newspaper publishers? - Has the Newspaper Publishers Association outlived its usefulness? The Mirror Group certainly thinks so. Fed up with internal bickering and ’backstabbing’, it decided to withdraw i

The Newspaper Publishers Association press release was short and to the point. Commenting on the Mirror Group’s decision to leave the NPA, its chairman, Sir Frank Rogers, was quoted as saying: ’I regret the Mirror’s decision. The NPA will continue to serve the interests of its members.’ And then the punchline: ’The NPA will not be making any further comment.’

The Newspaper Publishers Association press release was short and to

the point. Commenting on the Mirror Group’s decision to leave the NPA,

its chairman, Sir Frank Rogers, was quoted as saying: ’I regret the

Mirror’s decision. The NPA will continue to serve the interests of its

members.’ And then the punchline: ’The NPA will not be making any

further comment.’



Ever? It may come to that, of course. The NPA is in a bad way. But

surely there was news from the latest crisis meetings? A call to Sir

Frank’s office at the Telegraph elicited a tart response from his

secretary who is usually polite. ’The release means what it says, I

think you’ll find,’ she offered. Welcome to bear-with-sore-head

territory.



The reasons for the Mirror’s departure are perhaps trivial - even

irrelevant.



The Mirror Group’s chief executive, David Montgomery, maintains that he

is tired of the back-stabbing, such as the dispute between the Times and

the Telegraph over circulation figures, which seems to be the number one

recreation of newspaper publishers these days. While the squabbling

drags on, other functions of the NPA - promoting the medium as a whole -

languish.



Not that the NPA has much of a track record in this department. The last

generic marketing campaign, launched in 1992, was, at best, an

embarrassment - an ill-considered campaign that attempted to argue that

television didn’t work. Nothing about whether newspapers did work.



As for backstabbing, it’s what the NPA has always been best at. It’s a

trademark brand. Constituted on ’the enemy of my enemy is my friend’

principle, the NPA was once an important rallying standard in Fleet

Street’s fight against the unions. Remember unions? But in recent years,

lacking such outside distractions, newspaper publishers have

rediscovered that they remain the bitterest of rivals.



Has the NPA reached the end of the road? Does anyone care if it has?



Tim Kirkman, the head of press at TMD Carat, points out that the NPA’s

primary function has been to check out the financial health of agencies

and issue them with official trading recognition. But has that function

become irrelevant? Kirkman states: ’Publishers pay about pounds 250,000

subscription - is credit control worth paying a quarter of a million

for? I’ve actually got some sympathy with what the Mirror has been

saying.’



Kirkman argues that it’s not the NPA’s role to act as referee between

the Times and the Telegraph over circulation figures - though, he

concedes, you could argue that it’s the NPA’s role to ensure that fights

like that don’t start in the first place. But the newspaper market

shouldn’t be allowed to slide into anarchy.



’The national press needs an industry body, one that can step back and

look at the industry in its entirety. Publishers are talking about each

employing their own accountancy companies to audit circulation

figures.



That’s no use to us. They need someone to remind them of that,’ he

says.



’There are big issues that the industry has to address. Every newspaper

group is in the business of managing decline, yet they all have

expensive independent sales forces. That’s something the NPA could be

looking at. The medium should be marketing itself. The loss of the NPA

would matter. Agencies should be making their position clear on this.

But I’m not pessimistic. The Mirror may be doing this to establish a

negotiating position.’



Gaining NPA credit recognition was once a crucial step for a start-up

agency. That may still be the case, but each individual publisher now

sets its own trading conditions - and as Colin Gottlieb, the managing

partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, points out, they are often more

stringent than the NPA demands.



’I’m not at all sure about what the NPA does any more,’ he admits.

’People will question why it doesn’t provide a massive value-added

service like the Radio Advertising Bureau does for radio. But I’m not

sure that it’s relevant in newspapers. The medium is powerful

politically and commercially. Each title is such a recognisable brand.

What can they say about themselves jointly in marketing terms? Companies

are active in so many other media sectors these days - how can they

convince themselves that there can be this gentleman’s club of

publishers?



’When they have tried to run a generic campaign, the passion clearly

hasn’t been there. It has been half-hearted at best. When the people at

the top lose interest, it can become a real farce trying to get people

further down to work at it. Perhaps the NPA has just run out of road.

Maybe there are vital industry functions that only the NPA can carry out

- but I can’t think of any. I don’t think we’d miss it.’



Guy Zitter, the managing director of the Daily Mail, argues that the

situation - particularly on credit control - is not quite so simple.

’Yes, we all have our own insurance arrangements, but they are only

valid for agencies recognised by the NPA. So it would be missed. It

performs several functions that are better handled by a single body than

by individual publishers. Is the Mirror going to carry out agency

recognition on its own behalf, or is it still going to expect us to do

it for them? I don’t know. I have to admit I’m mildly puzzled by all of

this,’ he reveals.



Robert Ray, the joint managing director of the Media Centre, maintains

that a centralised marketing function should still be on the agenda. He

states: ’The newspaper industry has to look at the bigger picture. I can

see why people don’t believe in generic marketing of the medium.



’But a new generation, brought up exclusively on television, may not be

so understanding. With the proliferation in channels, television is

becoming more accessible. Other media are getting their acts together

and marketing themselves - the national newspaper industry really does

need to get its act together. But I wouldn’t assume anything at this

stage. If change needs to be made, it sometimes doesn’t happen until

someone breaks rank. The Mirror Group’s action may well focus people’s

minds.’



Tim Kirkman



’Publishers pay about pounds 250,000 subscription - is credit control

worth paying a quarter of a million for? I’ve got some sympathy with

what the Mirror has been saying’



Colin Gottlieb



’Maybe there are vital industry functions that only the NPA can carry

out - but I can’t think of any. I don’t think we’d miss it’



Guy Zitter



’Yes, we all have our own insurance arrangements, but they are only

valid for agencies recognised by the NPA. So it would be missed’



Robert Ray



’If change needs to be made, it sometimes doesn’t happen until someone

breaks rank. The Mirror Group’s action may well focus people’s minds’



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