Many regional newspapers are struggling to reverse worrying circulation declines. But, nevertheless, there persists a healthy sense of confidence and optimism across the sector.
In June, Johnston Press announced it had acquired Score Press - the publisher of 45 weekly newspapers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland - from Emap for £155 million. The figure is higher than many analysts predicted. Johnston, it seems, is bullish about the medium's future prospects.
The regional newspapers sector certainly has a solid track record. In fact, it is the only above-the-line medium to have grown its adspend every year, year on year, for the past 13 years. And according to the trade body the Newspaper Society, regional press has held on to its share - 20.4 per cent - of total advertising revenue while other key media have lost ground.
Regional is the largest print advertising medium in the UK and figures from the Advertising Association for 2004 show it enjoyed the biggest boost in ad revenue for all print media, up 6 per cent on 2003, to exceed £3 billion for the first time.
"Regional media is holding its own and advertisers see its worth at a local support level," Mediavest Manchester's head of regional press, Sue Davenport, says. "The publishers have started to listen to the advertisers more. They used to dictate what you could do creatively. Now they offer all sorts of crazy shapes and sponsorship strips that you couldn't do before."
Regional newspapers continue to be "leaner and fitter" than their national counterparts, and have invested heavily to improve the quality of their products, MediaCom Accent's associate director, Les Middleton, says. He also applauds their willingness to co-operate with each other. Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe Newspapers joined forces to develop standard advertising formats across groups - a move that you're unlikely to see between, say, News Corporation and the Mirror Group for their national titles.
Yet, Middleton accepts that not everything is rosy. "Circulations are still falling away - paid-for dailies are losing some of their circulation. They need to attract new, younger readers to replace the ones that are dying off."
Publishers have responded by embracing other media, such as the internet, mobile phones and specialist magazines, to reach audiences that are fast breaking up. As well as 1,300 regional and local, daily and weekly newspaper titles, the regional press now boasts more than 300 standalone magazines and niche publications, more than 600 websites, 23 radio stations and three television stations.
The aim is to make regional press brands the obvious media choice for consumers and advertisers. This multi-channel approach - which is known as "layering" - has brought about some profound changes.
Take the Manchester Evening News. The newspaper has been successfully layering its markets to offer advertisers a portfolio of different products and channels to choose from. There is its new afternoon city Lite edition, Channel M television, websites, as well as youth magazines.
"Our strategy is to become a true multi-platform, local publishing and advertising business, deepening our presence in our core markets by delivering content and advertising solutions across a range of media," Trinity Mirror's managing director of regional newspapers, Georgina Harvey, says. "Our digital operations moved into profit for the first time last year and are now growing fast."
"It's not just the printed word any more. It's all the things that fit under the umbrella of the regional press," the Newspaper Society's marketing director, Robert Ray, says.
Ray, the former managing director of Starcom Worldwide's Procter & Gamble global business unit, joined the society at the start of this year. The man known for his love of extreme sports has set about the equally daring task of revamping the regional press' marketing and the way it is perceived.
In Ray's view, it is essential to address the "wider social context" in which local media sits - the pivotal role it plays in binding communities and providing local information.
The Newspaper Society's myuk study of 2003 found that there is an increased appreciation of local differences among people in the UK, plus a growing level of interest in local news and events. Forty-eight per cent of respondents said they were more interested in things that happened in the city or town where they live.
Then there's Consumers' Choice V, a national consumer survey by TNS Media, which gives evidence that people prefer to shop close to home. More than half of adults do their grocery shopping within two miles of home. Local newspaper publishers see in such figures a compelling argument for advertising at a local level.
Recent Newspaper Society research found that, on the whole, people are only prepared to travel 17.5 miles to get to work. Ray is keen to commission more research to help clarify the importance of locality, both in terms of media consumption and everyday life. "We're trying to be a little more subtle and stealth-like without being apologetic," he says. "I think maybe the regional press has been a little meek in the past."
Middleton, who is a fan of Ray's willingness to meet key players in the media industry face to face, agrees. He also believes some of the newspaper groups should do more to keep agencies updated on the latest figures, product initiatives and trends, rather than relying on sales houses to do it.
"A lot of the youngsters working within agencies who look after a lot of the money are not up-to-date on what regional media has to offer," Middleton says. "That's something publishers and the Newspaper Society need to address. Robert Ray has got a bit of a job to do. The Newspaper Society isn't at the top of everybody's list of favourite people. But Robert is getting out there and talking to people, which hasn't really been done for a number of years."
Recent figures released by the Advertising Association show that regional press advertising revenue grew by 2.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year, outpacing total press ad revenue, which rose by 1.4 per cent. The property sector and recruitment advertising are the two biggest growth categories, up 14.8 per cent and 4.4 per cent, respectively.
Below are seven stories of how it is done. Publishing groups will have to keep innovating and layering their offer if they are to hold on to readers.
The Kent Messenger is the flagship title of the family owned Kent Messenger Group. The six-edition title is the biggest-selling weekly newspaper in the UK, and continues to grow apace. Between 1994 and 2004, its circulation soared by 43 per cent - to 57,450 copies - and ad revenue has driven massive volume increments.
Market share is at an all-time high. But the paper is changing. It has added sport as a fourth regular supplement (joining leisure, property and cars), redesigned its news sections and a monthly business supplement was added this summer.
THE CUMBERLAND NEWS
It's been a good year for local papers in the Lake District. The Carlisle-based CN Group won the Newspaper Society's award for circulation increases for its daily, the News & Star, and its flagship weekly, The Cumberland News, has just been named Regional Newspaper of the Year. Each title has its own branded website, a formula that has helped to grow their combined print and web audiences at a healthy rate. Both newspapers have invested in new layers of services for their advertisers, leading advertising revenue growth to double that of the industry norm over the past five years.
In March this year, the Guardian Media Group's Manchester Evening News launched MEN Lite, a free daily tabloid distributed to outbound commuters between 4.30pm and 6.30pm, Monday to Friday. "MEN Lite is now the fourth edition of the Manchester Evening News," MEN's deputy managing director, Mark Rix, says. Research has revealed that 80 per cent of MEN Lite's readers are ABC1 with 57 per cent in the desirable 15- to 34-year-old age bracket.
Average reading time is 24 minutes, and the title is read, on average, 4.4 times a week.
Teesside's Evening Gazette relaunched a year ago and the gamble has paid off. It went from a broadsheet to a compact format, following a £14.6 million investment in a new press facility at Riverside Park, Middlesbrough, by Trinity Mirror. With daily sales figures of around 58,000, the paper is the best-performing metropolitan-sized evening title in the country.
Not bad for a 100 per cent actively purchased newspaper. The Evening Gazette has also collected awards for its sales efforts, taking three honours at the Newspaper Society's Sales & Promotions Awards.
EXPRESS & STAR
The Express & Star is the biggest regional newspaper outside London.
It averages 433,000 readers a night - 38 per cent of the adult population within its marketing area. The title is also in the business of retail, magazines, internet and commercial radio. A critical development has been the creation of "editionised" platforms for editorial and advertising that cover the Wolverhampton, Dudley and North Worcestershire, Walsall, West Bromwich and Staffordshire areas. A £300,000 research project, which gives in-depth information about the people in its heartland, is unique to the industry.
LIVERPOOL DAILY POST
Football isn't the only thing to recapture former glory in Liverpool.
Its local paper has been given a new lease of life. A dramatic relaunch saw the Liverpool Daily Post unveil several new supplements, hike up its pagination and reintroduce the word "Liverpool" to the masthead after an absence of 25 years - its return chiming with a new renewed sense of pride in the city. The relaunch led to an immediate sales lift, and the Trinity Mirror title's July-to-December ABC circulation growth of 4.2 per cent made it the best-performing regional morning paper in the UK.
Despite the area being hit badly by recession, during the past ten years, the Barnsley Chronicle has increased its circulation by 19 per cent and is now selling more copies than at any time in its 147-year history.
Advertising volumes have also increased consistently over the decade, including national display advertising. Research shows that the readership profile matches the area's socio-economic grouping, but is slightly younger than the area's age profile. It also shows that, in the Barnsley area, the paper can claim to be read by more than all the national newspapers put together.