REGIONAL MEDIA: POLISHING UP THE REGIONS - Investment in regional newspapers has seen them retain their advertising revenue despite the UK's media fragmentation. Matthew Cowen reports

Last month's annual local newspaper week saw the usual collection

of dignified voices raised in praise of the regional press. There was

the Prince of Wales, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Roy Greenslade of The

Guardian and Brian MacArthur of The Times each paying homage to the

value of local community life and the importance of local newspapers to

those communities.



At first glance, this sounds suspiciously sentimental. However, if a

hard-nosed client happened to come across some of these quotes while

flicking through his local weekly, the chances are that the sentiments

would have rung a louder bell than was likely a year or so ago.



The regional press is in the midst of a marketing drive, undertaken by

its industry body. The Newspaper Society is seeking to ditch the image

of the industry from one dominated by eccentric local owners producing

monotone, badly printed papers with barely relevant editorial subject

matter.



The drive, pushed by the former NS marketing director Chris Stanley, and

executed in part by BDH TBWA, offers instead a vision of a modern

industry with valuable opportunities for both local and national

advertisers.



There's no doubt that it has made an impact among agencies.



"The attractions of the regional press haven't changed, they're just

being better promoted," Cathy Richards, the director of regional press

at Zenith, says. "The NS campaign has focused on defining and

quantifying the regional press' relationship with readers."



However, what hampers the work of the Newspaper Society, and of the

regional press' other advocates, is that the number of readers appears

to be declining - at least as far as the audited circulation figures are

concerned. Even the most robust sector, regional weeklies, showed

year-on-year losses in March's ABC figures.



The regional publishers themselves dispute the obvious interpretation

that the industry has continued to decline. They point to the decreasing

number of bulks registered by publishers with the Audit Bureau of

Circulations that have produced a drag on sales figures. They also argue

that readership numbers as represented in the Jicreg figures remain

stable or show evidence of expansion.



However, such claims occasionally have the feel of special pleading when

faced with the sustained dip in sales figures. Also, serious doubts

remain over whether regional papers are attracting the young readers

necessary to sustain them in the future.



So as Stanley makes his exit from the NS, his successor must endeavour

to explain why an obvious turnaround in circulation has not resulted

from the very genuine improvements made across the industry in recent

years.



Those improvements stem, for the most part, from the dramatic

consolidation that has taken place in the industry over the past decade.

Ten years ago the regional landscape was divided among multi-national

owners such as Thomson Regional Newspapers, Reed International, Pearson,

Emap and United Newspapers.



"These companies' major interests lie elsewhere and consequently,

regional newspapers were used as cash cows to fund other interests,"

Richards explains.



"Now they are all owned by newspaper specialists who therefore have to

invest in their core business."



The change began with Trinity's acquisition of Thomson and continued

with Newsquest grabbing Reed's regional titles and Pearson's Westminster

Press, and Emap's regional titles falling to Johnston. Together with

Associated Newspapers' Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and

Johnston now represent the major players in the regional industry,

greedily viewing independent groups such as Regional Independent Media,

which survived takeover bids last year.



"It's hard to see that the consolidation has anything other than

advantages for the reader and the advertiser," Mike McCormack, the chief

executive of Trinity Mirror's sales house, AMRA, says.



There has indeed been a spate of well- received editorial overhauls

across the industry. The Wakefield Express, published by Johnston's

Yorkshire Weekly Newspaper Group, has redesigned tabloid pull-outs for

property, leisure, sport and motoring and included a record 114 pages in

its 26 January issue this year. Liverpool Echo's editor, Mark Dickinson,

redesigned his well-respected daily on taking over, introducing extra

news pages, a more modern typeface, new sections and a new masthead. The

Norwich Evening News was relaunched in May with new daily supplements on

crime, health, education and employment.



Nor is innovation restricted to the larger publishers. Eastern Counties

Newspapers Group's Eastern Daily Press and RIM's Yorkshire Post remain

England's biggest- selling regional dailies, with editorial widely

praised as effective competition to the nationals in their areas.



And McCormack praises the level of investment that the Midlands News

Association, and its owners the Graham family, have made in titles such

as The West Midlands Express and The Shropshire Star, and points to

their growing circulation as evidence that ABC trends in the industry do

not move only one way.



However, it remains the case that the investment in editorial quality

has thus far failed to produce a dramatic turnaround in sales. According

to Richards, the task was always going to be harder in some sectors of

the industry than others.



"Weeklies have probably benefited the most from increased investment, as

is proven by their circulation performance," she says. "This is because

they are in less competitive markets than daily newspapers, so product

improvements can more easily have an effect."



Regional dailies face the difficult challenge of turning around a drop

in readers' frequency of purchase. In doing so, they must deal with

potential customers who are increasingly likely to commute by car rather

than public transport, removing many opportunities to buy and read their

product.



"Frequency of purchase isn't a new problem," Richards says. "Publishers

are aware of it and are making efforts to encourage readers to buy daily

newspapers regularly through a variety of initiatives."



However, the most obvious cause of the decline in regional press

circulation is the fragmentation of the UK's media. It's a process that

has seen falling numbers for national press, TV and local radio, and has

reduced magazines to a dependency on expensive promotions and

cover-mounting to maintain circulation.



The revamped regional press may not have produced a surge in circulation

over the past few years, but it has succeeded in slowing the rate of

decline and, according to Richards, that itself is a considerable

achievement.



"Holding circulation in a fragmenting market should actually result in

an increased share of revenue, as it improves relative position," she

says.



It is not only an increased share of revenue that the regional press

wish to point to. In March, Trinity Mirror, the biggest of the big four,

released the largest ever survey of regional press readership, aimed

squarely at pitching its titles' advertising credentials against other

local and national media. The research proclaimed that 58 per cent of

adults claimed to read an average issue of a Trinity Mirror publication

compared with only 45 per cent who listen to local commercial radio. The

results went on to state that 768,000 adults turned to Trinity Mirror

publications when looking to purchase a new car, versus 2,000 for local

commercial radio and 61,000 for national press. The publisher's titles

similarly came out on top when readers were looking to buy house

durables or were seeking employment.



Across all sectors of the regional press, trust is the major argument

deployed by publishers when discussing the extra value their readership

represents. "The regional press is apolitical," McCormack says. "You

don't get page threes or salacious headlines. You get a very balanced

view that reflects the nature of the readership."



Within a fragmenting marketplace, regional publishers' moves to extend

their interests into new media have also struck a chord with

advertisers, with opportunities increasing via collaborations such as

Fish4, which collects classified ads from all regional publishers,

upmystreet, which provides local information, and the Evening Standard

site, thisislondon.com.



All this evidence in favour of the regional press appears to have

impressed planning agencies; however, this may not be enough to sell the

industry to clients who continue to point to those troublesome

circulation figures.



"We know the regional press is well read, trusted and a boon to people

in local areas, but clients want proof and it's hard to supply that,"

Deborah Goodman, the head of regional strategic planning at New PHD,

says.



"It's especially important when we have to become more sophisticated in

the regional implementation of national strategies. Clients tend to be

cynical about the average reader-per-copy claims."



In many respects this cynicism has not dented the advertising

performance of the regional press. Its publishers remain the

second-largest recipient of UK advertising revenue behind TV, and

figures released by The Newspaper Society this month show revenue

increasing by 11.2 per cent in 2000, the largest growth in 12 years.



Recruitment advertising remains a particular boon for regional papers

and has proved resistant to the downturn in spend experienced by the

national press over recent months. However, despite an 8.2 per cent

increase in display advertising in 2000, there remains a perception that

regional press is not the natural home for national campaigns.



The NS push to combat this has concentrated on simplifying the process

of planning regional campaigns and delivering artwork - through the

Adfast delivery system and planregionalpress.co.uk website. It has also

pointed to case studies of national advertisers who have benefited from

regional campaigns.



Achieving standout for each advertising penny is also a difficult

proposition in the environment of local papers. "It's difficult to move

away from the clutter because demand is so high," Goodman says. "You

have to work hard to dominate the environment. This is why the

increasing number of sections and targeted platforms is so

important."



The advances currently being made by the regional press are likely to

overcome the problems of standout and targeting. However, all this will

be limited in its impact on national advertisers unless regional

publishers can find a way to talk to them in a language that clients

like.



With this in mind, the Newspaper Society has promised an ad

effectiveness survey far more extensive than the limited case studies

available thus far. If a set of figures emerges that everyone can agree

on, it could finally bring the regional press the respectability it

deserves in the eyes of national advertisers.



METRO - REGIONAL NEWSPAPERS' SUCCESS STORY



At first glance, Metro appears to be providing a welcome boost to the

circulation performance of the regional press. The launch of a string of

titles in the past year has allowed the industry as a whole to record a

2.73 per cent year-on-year rise in total circulation, despite

like-for-like declines in almost every sector.



Since being introduced to block a rival Swedish publisher's arrival in

London in early 1999, Metro has exploded across the UK's media

landscape.



National circulation of the Associated Newspapers title rocketed to

800,000 within its first 18 months, as the title surged out of its

London heartland, launching editions in London, Newcastle, Birmingham

and Edinburgh. Equally important, Metro boasts a genuinely youthful

readership profile in a sector that has been challenged on this

issue.



However, there remain doubts as to how far the Metro franchise can be

extended. Distribution of the title is a trickier proposition outside

London where there is no tube and many drive to work, and those who do

use public transport are outside the wealthy, young demographic that the

title boasts in the capital.



In any case, Metro's relationship to the regional press is far more

complex than that of a lively youngster, reinvigorating the older

members of the clan. There remain lingering doubts that the expansion of

the title is fuelling the downturn in regional press circulation,

particularly in the evening sector. Metro research indicates that less

than 1 per cent of the title's readership has stopped taking a regional

paper. However, this has not prevented the circulation director of the

Coventry Evening Telegraph, for one, blaming a circulation slide on

Metro's introduction to his city.



Many within the regional press counter that the title has had the effect

of rejuvenating newspaper readership as a whole - to the benefit of the

regional titles as well as the nationals. However, it should be noted

that Metro puts forward a noticeably different philosophy of regional

communities to its local newspaper brethren.



In an extensive readership survey released earlier this year, the paper

put forward a vision of a national urban community defined by their

relationship to the city, rather than geographical location. In many

ways, this contradicts the argument put forward by regional publishers

that life is local, and that a press inextricably linked to communities

is the only trusted way of covering them.



It will be interesting to see which slant advertisers find more

compelling.



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