A bit of good news can raise interest in regional papers

The ability of research companies to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds and acres of time in establishing the obvious surfaced once again last week, writes Ian Darby.

Millward Brown's regional press 'Conversion Study', a £250,000 commission from the Newspaper Society, was billed as a weighty piece of work in the battle to increase regional press' share of the advertising cake.

Its value to the NS and regional publishing groups is undoubted, mainly because advertisers can't go to the lavatory these days before first reading exhaustive research to confirm that it is indeed the correct place to deposit a turd. However, I can't imagine that a single person in the land will be surprised by what it's turned up.

Millward Brown took 9,275 interviews to establish such insights as "local press readers who are 'in the market' to make a purchase, actively seek information in the local press and are at the same time more alert to advertising messages" and "local press is effective across all categories, from an FMCG brand launch to retail".

Not earth shattering but the early signs are that the study will work for the NS, with Unilever and Johnson & Johnson already committed to spending more on the medium now they have the figures to prove that it's not a waste of money. But the obvious problem for regional press, now that it's up to speed in the pursuit of accountability, is that of perception. For some reason, tarts like me, and many in London ad and media agencies, would rather spend time thinking about Glamour outselling Cosmo or ITV's latest schedule than developments in regional publishing. It has spent years as the Cordelia of the piece, honest and trustworthy but relatively ignored in favour of its flattering sister media TV and national press.

The NS and the regional groups now have good news to relate to the doubters and the disinterested. Increased investment in creative, including the AdFast system, and printing facilities (for example, Trinity Mirror's regional newspaper operation is currently investing several hundred million pounds in modern printing presses) will do much to improve the reputation of the regional publishers.

Perhaps the killer point is the sheer profitability of these regional operations. Trinity Mirror is a good case. Last week's results show that its regional operation made increased profits of £120.1m, at a margin of 23.3%. Its national titles, including the much talked-about Daily Mirror, yielded just £77.6m at a margin of 15.7%. It is clear which is the healthier business, but Piers Morgan is always likely to generate more column interest and intrigue across the media world than the whole of the regional newspaper industry. This won't change over night but the emergence of a few industry characters and an emphasis on quality creative would certainly help its cause.

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