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
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
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
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
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,"
"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
"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
"Holding circulation in a fragmenting market should actually result in
an increased share of revenue, as it improves relative position," she
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
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
"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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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