SPOTLIGHT ON: REGIONAL PRESS - Why it’s unwise to believe the regional press sector’s spiel/Circulation figures are not as great as it would have us think

It’s not easy managing decline - as they used to know all too well at ITV. Keep apologising and you’ll be accused of defeatism; shout too loudly about the smallest of achievements and you risk undermining your credibility.

It’s not easy managing decline - as they used to know all too well

at ITV. Keep apologising and you’ll be accused of defeatism; shout too

loudly about the smallest of achievements and you risk undermining your

credibility.



All of which the regional press sector is beginning to discover. Last

week, the medium’s trade body - the Newspaper Society - made a great

fuss about the new Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the

six-month period from July to December 1998.



A bullish statement summed up by stating that the medium ’continues to

improve its overall circulation performance year on year ... the rate of

decline for the regional press overall has practically halted, from -2.2

per cent four years ago to -0.5 per cent this year’.



It almost makes sense, doesn’t it? As bemused regional buying

specialists began picking over the figures last week, they realised that

the medium has entered a world where losing by just 1-0 can be acclaimed

as a famous victory.



Let’s be clear about this - circulations are still on the slide. A

slower slide maybe, but still a slide. Does that still constitute

’improved performance’?



Perhaps. But some buyers say the medium needs a reality check. The

Newspaper Society’s marketing director, Chris Stanley, claims he’s aware

of the dangers. He comments: ’Although the picture is one of robust

growth for the weeklies and stability overall, we cannot afford to be

complacent. One of the major challenges for the industry is to make the

final leap into positive growth across all sectors.’



Some observers say it would be better to wait for that to happen before

pushing the boat out.



’No-one will listen to them when they have something genuinely exciting

to tell us,’ one regional buyer says. ’I felt embarrassed listening to

this,’ another adds. ’I felt it was done to massage the egos of the

publishers themselves.’



Neil Hepburn, the regional press director of BMP OMD, believes the

industry would be wiser to err more on the side of caution.



He comments: ’Chris Stanley is upbeat but cautious - and he should be in

an industry where the four top performers collectively posted an

increase of approximately 8,000 copies.



’You have to set that against the fact that the top two regional evening

titles lost a combined total greater than that over the same period. In

fact, just under three quarters of the top 20 evening titles lost

circulation year on year. The weekly press has fared better and is the

only sector of the market to have a plus sign against its year-on-year

circulation comparisons.’



But as the evening titles are the ones of most interest to national

advertisers, that’s hardly going to improve the medium’s standing in the

ad market.



And performance in that area hasn’t been inspiring lately. In fact, some

buyers say that the circulation figures pale into insignificance

compared to its lacklustre performance in that area.



Hepburn states: ’Collectively, the regional press seems to be bucking

the trend. But the industry has a lot to do to capture the attention of

long-lost advertisers. The Newspaper Society is doing an excellent job,

but the focus should be on the publishers and their national sales

operations.’



Some buyers are more willing to cut the medium some slack. ’There is

nothing wrong with pointing out that things are improving. And it’s a

lot better than what’s happening in national press,’ one planner

notes.



Julia Bean, the regional press director of Carat, states: ’Regional

press is performing well, especially when you consider it has been under

attack by other local media, particularly radio. More publishers

understand their readers these days and the investment is there.



’We’re seeing more local publishers who know the business, are in it for

the long term and realise that if they want to see profits, they have to

invest in their products. That investment is paying off.’



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