Media Forum: Hard times for regional press?

Despite a positive survey, do regional papers face tough times?

If ad revenues were linked in any way to the enthusiasm and irrepressibility of a medium's marketing efforts, then the regional press would be growing faster than even the super soaraway internet.

With awesome regularity, the medium's trade body, The Newspaper Society, launches some sort of marketing initiative, often based around specially commissioned research. This is on top of the annual Creative Juice awards that encourage agencies to make the most of the medium's distinctive relationship with its local readership.

Its most recent initiative, "the wanted ads", was launched last week.

Conducted by GfK NOP, the research took in 5,000 consumer interviews and held focus groups up and down the country.

Its conclusions are that readers welcome the presence of advertising in regional papers - and, as a result, ad avoidance isn't the problem it is in other media. As a result, brands (especially national brands) acquire huge resonance in this environment.

So, yet more good news for the medium. And surely this will allow it to make more headway on one of its long-term goals - persuading the London advertising community that this is a prime environment for national advertisers.

In any case, the story here is that whatever way you look at it, the medium remains in robust health. But what about all those regional press redundancies last Christmas? Or the mystery of the Northcliffe affair?

When Daily Mail & General Trust put its Northcliffe regional newspaper division up for sale last November, the assumption was that the company foresaw only a bleak future for regionals as online media owners began to steal their core classified revenues. And then, when DMGT did a U-turn and took the division off the market, it was assumed that possible bidders had reached the same pessimistic conclusions.

So isn't the medium looking a little fragile? Robert Ray, The Newspaper Society's marketing director, can't see it. He argues that the underlying trend is very encouraging - and this latest research is only going to underline the medium's inherent strengths.

He says: "It's understandable that if you work for a London-based agency you might not be exposed to what's happening in real people's lives outside London. I think many people will be surprised at the extent to which their (regional and local) newspapers are relied upon. It's the second-most-consumed media - it's a real powerhouse.

"At a local level, advertising is significantly more important to people. And that has to be seen in the context of big industry issues such as ad avoidance. Readers of local titles are significantly less likely to skip over ads. They say they'd actually miss the advertising if it wasn't there."

But are regionals really of increasing interest to national advertisers?

Absolutely, Georgina Harvey, Trinity Mirror's managing director, regionals, says. "There's no question that, over the past few years, national advertisers have become increasingly aware of the benefits of using regional press for brand advertising. Our national sales house, Amra, has attracted names such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, who traditionally would not have included regionals on their campaign schedules."

But John Prentice, the media director of PHD Group's regional press division, Space Station, isn't so sure. "Regional papers are still profitable - even Northcliffe delivers a huge chunk of DMGT profits," he concedes.

"But there is a nervousness about recent trends and revenue prospects. Publishers need to adapt and to make better use of their brands, especially in terms of developing them as online properties."

However, Ian Tournes, the press director of Starcom Mediavest, is willing to cut the publishers more slack. He comments: "They are always going to struggle with some advertisers because the cost-per-thousand (uncompetitive versus national press) issue is still there. But I think they are succeeding in making some national advertisers - for instance, in retail - think more in regional and local terms."

But he concludes: "The regional press has been doing itself a lot of favours recently. The criticism was that it had insular attitudes, but that has been changing. In the past, individual publishers would only talk about their own titles. These days they are far more likely to give you a generic sell. That's not to say they couldn't do more in talking to planners, but I think we all appreciate the strength of the local brands the medium offers."

NO - ROBERT RAY, marketing director, The Newspaper Society

"There's a real sense of direction and determination in the business. And agencies will be interested in the extent to which people notice advertising in their paper and actually value its presence there."

NO - GEORGINA HARVEY, managing director, regionals, Trinity Mirror

"Our confidence is reflected in the successful launch of five new local papers last year and the decision to launch further titles in 2006. We've consistently shown we can adapt to changes in the market."

YES - JOHN PRENTICE, media director, Space Station

"Revenues at the big groups are down for the first time in a long time. Circulations are also down for the big paid-for titles and some of them are at circulation levels that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago."

NO - IAN TOURNES, press director, Starcom Mediavest

"The Northcliffe situation doesn't reflect badly on the medium. I don't think they changed their minds about a sale because of any lack of interest - there were seven or eight companies rumoured to be looking at it."

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