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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.’