REGIONAL PRESS: THE DEVOLUTION EFFECT - Regional newspapers, traditionally seen as media’s poor relation, have benefited from the recent return to community values and ad revenue and circulation are increasing. But despite fresh marketing efforts,

Surprisingly, for a nation that’s had its fair share of practice, Britain is not particularly good at managing decline. Walk down any of the crumbling Georgian streets of its fading seaside resorts and marvel at what the former bathing haunts of the rich and famous have become.

Surprisingly, for a nation that’s had its fair share of practice,

Britain is not particularly good at managing decline. Walk down any of

the crumbling Georgian streets of its fading seaside resorts and marvel

at what the former bathing haunts of the rich and famous have

become.



The ubiquity of the cut-price gift emporiums and down-at-heel promenades

resemble no more than - in the words of one astringent critic - a

car-boot sale in an open prison. Things are scarcely better in Britain’s

regional centres. Witness the soot-stained relics of a proud industrial

heyday that now pass for monuments in some of the UK’s once-celebrated

towns.



Assessing how Britain handles decline can be achieved more easily than

embarking on a half-hearted sightseeing trip. Traditionally, regional

newspapers were a measure of decline. They were mirrors of society;

never quite as wholesome, progressive or well presented as they used to

be, or indeed as we fondly remembered them.



Except that they have changed. Suddenly and unexpectedly regional

newspapers have risen above the situation where managing a gentle

decline is the best they could hope for. The industry has abruptly

assumed a position that commentators, experts and even its own

practitioners agreed it wasn’t supposed to: it finds itself at the

forefront of media investment and change, seemingly at one even with a

government pledged to returning power to the regions. But it wasn’t

supposed to happen that way.



A decade ago, regional newspaper sales were falling sharply while costs

- especially newsprint costs - were moving in the opposite direction and

at an even faster rate. Worse, ad revenue was ebbing away from a medium

that seemed able to deliver only a dwindling and rapidly ageing

audience.



Profits, meanwhile, were plummeting across the board. Multimedia giants

including Thomson, Reed, United, Pearson and Emap spent years weighing

up the prospects in the sector, only to find them wanting. They

concluded that there were better returns to be had elsewhere. In fact,

of the six largest regional press groups a decade ago, only one -

Northcliffe - remains in the regional press business, while other major

conglomerates such as Ingersoll and Lonrho have long since dropped out

of the fray.



Companies saw that in addition to its inherited structural problems, the

regional press was in danger of falling between what the Henley Centre

has identified as the two predominant trends in marketing today: on the

one hand, globalisation and the standardisation of marketing strategy

and communications; on the other, the development of personalised

one-to-one offers to individual consumers. It was neither, it seemed, a

mass medium nor was it sufficiently well targeted to pass any direct

marketing muster. The big boys cashed in their chips and went.



In their place are companies with positive outlooks run by long-time

regional press enthusiasts. They include Jim Brown, the Newsquest

executive chairman who engineered a management buyout of his former

employer, Reed, and then snapped up Pearson’s Westminster Press for what

now seems a bargain price, and Philip Graf, chief executive of Trinity

International, the company that a decade ago was the 14th largest

regional press player. It now sits at the top of that particular list,

having acquired the former Thomson titles, and its strength means it can

at least hold talks about buying Mirror Group. There are other successes

too, such as Johnston Press and Eastern Counties Newspapers and so far

it appears as if it’s them, not the departing media giants, that have

made the correct decision.



That is certainly the case in terms of circulation. Total regional press

sales fell by 0.5 per cent for the period July to December 1997,

according to the latest ABC figures. That might not sound particularly

impressive in absolute terms, but it represents the strongest

performance by the medium for several years.



A year ago, regional press circulations recorded a decline of 1.5 per

cent and, in 1994, that figure was 2.2 per cent. The overall figure also

masks some more than merely encouraging statistics, not least that 56

per cent of all regional titles - morning, evening and weekly - recorded

sales rises during the period. Local weeklies put on sales over the

audit period while the evening titles that for the past decade have

borne the brunt of the industry’s malaise have seemingly turned the

corner. A third of them managed to increase sales during the period.



The figures look better still when put into the context of the

fragmenting media market, with national papers continuing to lose

circulation, commercial radio listening falling and the ITV audience in

long-term decline.



’Of course, a large part of the medium’s recent success has been

achieved because of the structural changes, including the ownership

changes, increased investment and so on,’ the Newspaper Society’s

national development manager, Charles Ross, points out, ’but we hope it

is being sustained because of a growing trend toward regionalisation and

a genuine recognition among companies about the benefits of talking to

your customers at a local level.



The more people think ’local’, the more we benefit.’



That is certainly part of the message that the Newspaper Society has

helped unearth in its research into this area. It commissioned a Henley

Centre report into the future of local marketing strategies, which

identified pronounced differences in the way consumers behave on a local

level. More importantly - at least as far as the regional press is

concerned and despite all the obituaries written about the future of the

local community in Britain - the report concluded that ’the personal

interests and activities in which we engage are almost all still

geographically located near us’.



The emergence of cause-related marketing initiatives in the UK, with

their emphasis on community focus has also helped to boost the

sector.



Long-running, cause-related marketing efforts including Tesco’s

’computers for schools’ promotion have persuaded consumers to

repeat-purchase to collect vouchers. Many companies such as Tesco focus

on the fact that people like to feel they belong to a local

community.



’All the evidence is that consumers respond best when they see the

results being returned directly to their own community,’ Sue Adkins,

director of Business in the Community, the charity that works to promote

cause-related marketing initiatives in the UK, says. ’Tesco, for

example, has witnessed shoppers organising themselves to get computer

equipment to meet the specific needs of schools in their area. It works

because people are still concerned about their communities.’



It’s the same sort of local determinism and drive that is helping to

propel revenues in the regional press. In fact, national display ad

revenue in the medium is now running at around 12 per cent higher than a

year ago, according to Newspaper Society figures. Advertising

Association figures reflect that growth.



’I think the resurgence has been helped by the fact that both the

regional press and their national sales houses have really made a virtue

of their regionality,’ Initiative Media’s managing director, Roy Jeans,

points out.



’The reality is that consumers are different in, say, East Anglia and

the North-west and companies are starting to realise this. It’s also

important that the sales houses have stepped up their appeal direct to

the client. After all, by the time they speak to the head of regional

press at an agency, the media decision has already been made. Instead

they’ve created client service staff whose job is not just to validate

the deals that are done but to also get on with selling the medium and

this is starting to bear fruit.’



The result of the initiative was the highest year-on-year increase in

national display ad revenue for ten years in the first quarter of last

year and there was continued double-digit improvement during the rest of

1997.



’To be honest, we are a little flattered by the revenue growth figures

because 1996 was such a poor year,’ the AMRA chief executive, Mike

McCormack, admits. ’But that said, we have had some real success - as

have the other sales houses - by switching our emphasis to the client

side and recruiting staff to talk directly to clients. Let’s face it, no

agency planner working for a big fmcg brand such as PG Tips is ever

going to consider the Goole Times & Chronicle essential to his media

universe.



’But the client might if we can deliver an area that, according to TGI,

is full of heavy tea drinkers and talk to him about all the evidence we

have that people travel less than two miles to do their grocery

shopping. Suddenly that paper and the whole regional press medium starts

to look more attractive.’



Much of the underlying growth in the regional press is coming on the

back of the success of the economy. Classified ad revenue is currently

up between 20 and 40 per cent on a year ago, according to the best

estimates, and the temptation is for the medium to sit back and enjoy

the profits.



But the regional press has suffered too hard for too long to start

taking for granted its new-found prosperity. Indeed, the Newspaper

Society is lobbying its members for investment in what would be its

first multi-million pound advertising campaign, and is keen to step up

its overall marketing effort.



’It’s a huge job. We have just completed a review of our marketing

operations in which 80 per cent of our customers rated them as more

effective than they were when we were launched two years ago, but the

image of the regional and local press still needs to be improved,’ Ross

points out. ’I’d give us around six out of ten so far. Hopefully that

will change when we launch Business Choice, which will be the biggest

research document we’ve ever produced and will show advertisers what the

regional press can do to reach a business audience.’



’Now is the time when we have to put our message over even more

power-fully,’ AMRA’s McCormack adds. ’The danger is that as an industry

we will sit back and be content with the upsurge in local ad revenue and

watch it drift away if the economy collapses. It’s what happened at the

height of the boom in the 80s. We were happy to take millions from them

but there was no sense of locking in these advertisers as long-term

partners.’



And while there is less chance of the power of the medium’s message

being lost on advertisers this time around, there is no doubt that the

regional press still has some way to go if it wants to exploit the full

potential of local marketing initiatives and devolution.



’The regional press has an impressive story to tell but it has been too

introspective in its marketing so far,’ the MediaVest joint managing

director, Robert Ray, points out. ’We have used initiatives such as

Featurelink, where the Newspaper Society develops editorial around your

regional press campaign, and are very impressed by it, but generally

there’s not enough effort dedicated to attracting new business. The

other major problem is that for all the consolidation of ownership, the

regional press remains a nightmare to plan and buy.’



The unwieldy nature of the media-buying infrastructure in the regional

press threatens to put a brake on the trend towards devolution.

MediaVest operates a seven-strong team to administer its pounds 15

million worth of regional press business, whereas two or three people

might handle a similar volume of business in TV.



’The development of a standard industry IT system with the possibility

of online deals would help regional press take off in national

advertising terms,’ Ray says. ’The existing opportunities, such as the

national sales package, the Word, or the plans for a joint booking

system between Newsquest and Media-Force are all very well, but they

don’t go far enough. The really exciting change will happen when all the

major players get involved.’





TOP 20 REGIONAL PRESS PUBLISHERS

RANK   GROUP NAME                           TOTAL TITLES          WEEKLY

                                                             CIRCULATION

1      Trinity plc                                   121       8,301,337

2      Northcliffe Newspapers Group Ltd               56       8,040,969

3      Newsquest Media Group Ltd *                   124       7,653,088

4      Johnston Press plc                            141       4,269,973

5      Mirror Group (Regional) Newspapers             42       4,219,914

6      Regional Independent Media                     33       3,275,611

7      Eastern Counties Newspapers Group              70       3,145,719

8      Southern Newspapers plc                        63       2,749,509

9      Guardian Media Group plc                       36       2,708,407

10     Southnews plc                                  54       2,655,744

11     Midland News Assoc Ltd                         20       2,204,597

12     Portsmouth & Sunderland Nsprs plc              23       1,963,748

13     Bristol United Press plc                       14       1,436,506

14     Adscene Group plc                              44       1,378,916

15     Scotsman Publications plc                       6       1,378,662

16     Scottish Media Ltd                              2       1,335,210

17     Yattendon Investment Trust plc                 21         850,639

18     Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd                28         814,910

19     D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd                          2         782,874

20     Kent Messenger Group                           17         716,551

Based on total weekly circulation of regional and local newspapers

published at least weekly and listed on the Newspaper Society database;

Audited circulations only. N.B.* Includes acquisition

subject to DTI approval.



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