Media: All about ... Regional newspapers ABCs

Life may be local, but it won't necessarily be in print, Alasdair Reid says.

You have to admire the optimism with which the regional newspaper industry presents itself to the world - particularly the energy with which it markets itself to the ad industry. Because these are tough times, as the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures clearly show.

Only one sector - local weeklies - escaped the carnage. Every paid-for daily in England, Scotland and Wales was down. Ditto every single evening title. And Sunday title. And we thought the previous ABCs, released in March, were bad.

If that wasn't depressing enough, these figures coincided with the release of display advertising revenue projections from Group M. These predicted that year-on-year revenues in regional press for the calendar year 2006 will be down 6.6 per cent on 2005. And the report also forecasts that 2007 will be down again on 2006.

There are plenty of political theorists prepared to argue that our regional sense of community continues to be eroded as, year by year, (in England and Wales at least), local authorities are steadily stripped of real decision-making powers. And yet, while political power is being centralised, media power is being devolved.

The growth in blogging, personal web space and news groups ensures that virtual communities can flourish without the mediating presence of editors and newspaper proprietors. If you want to sell your house or buy a car, the local press is hardly your only option these days.

And yet the medium keeps insisting that it represents the future. Back in June, Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of WPP, a company with a global mindset if ever there was one, was up on stage at the Newspaper Society's Home Truths conference, agreeing wholeheartedly with the proposition, advanced by Tim Bowdler, the chief executive of Johnston Press, that "life is local".

And it's true that there are reasons to be cheerful. The internet may be eroding the power of old-fashioned paper and ink, but the regional publishers are themselves at the forefront of the online revolution. Many of these media organisations are now aiming to position themselves as multimedia companies offering "local channels".

It's also true that the overall revenue picture is far from gloomy. National display revenues are dwarfed by local display and classified, which are holding up. Profit margins remain robust - and, in that respect at least, regional newspapers remain in better health than their national counterparts.

1. Trinity Mirror is the biggest regional publisher by weekly circulation - the aggregated figure is more than 13 million copies - but Johnston Press has more titles, 282 to Trinity's 234. Johnston Press has a weekly circulation aggregate of slightly more than nine million, as does the other member of the big three, Newsquest Media Group, which owns 219 titles. The second tier of regional media owners includes Northcliffe Newspapers (111 titles), Archant (78) and Guardian Media Group (43).

2. Trinity Mirror had at least one reason to be cheerful - its Liverpool Echo title now sells more than its rival, the Manchester Evening News, despite a year-on-year circulation decline of 6.1 per cent. MEN, owned by Guardian Media Group, saw circulation fall by 16.5 per cent year on year.

3. But Trinity Mirror took a real caning in Birmingham, with the Birmingham Mail down 17.1 per cent year on year, despite a lavish relaunch, a strategic recommitment to coverage of local issues and a £1 million marketing push.

4. Both Newsquest, which owns The Herald and the Evening Times in Glasgow, and Johnston, which owns The Scotsman and the Evening News in Edinburgh, suffered badly. The worst performer was the Evening News, which declined by 7.7 per cent.

5. The biggest success story in the ABC figures involved the Gravesend Dartford Messenger titles, which were up 71.3 per cent to 8,434 - but even they were down 3.5 per cent period on period.

6. The medium's generic marketing body, the Newspaper Society, remains bullish despite these circulation setbacks. Next week, it will launch phase two of its major research initiative, The Wanted Ads. This highlights the strengths of regional titles as advertising vehicles - ad avoidance is low, the research shows, and when it comes to campaign effectiveness, the medium dovetails well with other media.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

MEDIA OWNERS

- Regional publishers knew the scale of the challenge facing them before this latest circulation meltdown, so you can't really argue that this is a wake-up call. That was received and understood many months ago.

- The challenge, of course, is to own the entire regional media space. That involves developing their web presence but, as the Guardian Media Group has shown, it can also mean focusing on other electronic media. The market will watch with interest as the group continues to develop its local television channel in Manchester, Channel M.

- As digital bandwidth becomes cheaper and more readily available, other regional media owners will need to diversify in a similar fashion - or perish.

ADVERTISERS

- John Prentice, the media director of PHD Group's regional arm, Space Station, argues that the medium will continue to be attractive to advertisers despite the recent bad news.

- He comments: "The sheer numbers reading local newspapers are absolutely massive, so the reach you can achieve is massive. And its key strength remains its relevance to people's lives. There's life in the old dog yet."

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