Media Forum: Are regionals in rude health?

Should we worry about the health of regional newspapers? Alasdair Reid reports.

It's tough out there in the regions, apparently. But what would we know? Regional publishers, especially those from that territory reputedly located somewhere to the north of Watford, say that soft southern Jessies don't have a clue what it's like in the real world.

It works both ways too, of course. Sometimes the odd soft southern Jessie will be gullible enough to swallow a bit of elegantly crafted marketing spin. Like the one about the regional press being a happening medium.

Granted, financial performance at the big publishing groups such as Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror has been excellent; and there's this notion doing the rounds that there has been a renaissance in advertising creativity and increasing numbers of mainstream advertisers are being tempted to run multi-local press campaigns.

Unsettlingly, though, there was news last week that all may not be well in the regional market. Regional publishers, it seems, have actually been neglecting that most important term in any media equation - their audience.

In short, figures for the second half of 2004 show that the majority of paid-for regional titles recorded period-on-period circulation declines. Many of the country's leading regional daily titles were hit, including the Manchester Evening News, The Yorkshire Post and the Birmingham Evening Mail.

Is there a trend here? As the medium faces its biggest philosophical challenge in decades - whether to embrace the compact revolution - should advertisers be concerned about its health?

Robert Ray, the marketing director of the Newspaper Society, says the medium is being misrepresented. Some of the circulation declines have occurred because regional publishers have responded to advertiser demand for greater transparency by stripping out bulks from their circulation figures.

He adds: "The truth is that the regional newspaper industry is taking a lead here. In the weekly sector, the Audit Bureau of Circulations figure is 99 per cent actively purchased. The TV market doesn't focus on how many TV sets there are, it concentrates on audience - and the regional newspaper audience continues to be healthy."

Understandably, Ray wants advertisers to focus on the medium's unambiguously good news. "The reality is that regional press is a really dynamic medium with more happening in it than ever before. We're seeing lots of product layering (Ray's phrase for brand extensions), for instance, in new magazine offshoots. Advertisers can do more in the medium than ever before."

However, Craig Lennon, the associate director of MediaCom Accent, can't agree with that analysis. He can sense complacency. He states: "A lot of the stuff you hear in defence of the regional press is completely beside the point. In many cases, when they say they've stripped out all of the bulks, the headline figure they're promoting is still only 94 per cent paid-for - and the figure is still going down year on year."

And he continues: "I'd like to see more serious attempts to regenerate circulation. There's no one way of doing this and individual titles should be seeking approaches that are relevant to their own markets. One or two titles have been actively seeking younger readers - the theory being that it will give them access to a new potential audience in the future. Unfortunately, that sort of thing is rare."

Oh no, it isn't, Gary McNish, the managing director of the sales house Amra, says. He states: "In the past year, Trinity Mirror has invested in successful relaunches and compact conversions for a number of titles, with a positive impact on circulation. For example, the Liverpool Daily Post, following a redesign and repositioning in 2004, was the best-performing morning news-paper with an uplift of 4.2 per cent."

Roy Jeans, the managing director of Magna Global UK, agrees. He says an outsider looking in would conclude this is a medium in robust health.

Just look at the bumper profits recently posted by, among others, Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press, he urges. He concludes: "They are in the same position as the nationals - managing gentle decline. No-one can escape the fact that people are reading less. But regionals have been innovative - for instance, in online. It's sometimes portrayed as a medium of old-fashioned family businesses but, in truth, it's in the hands of professional managers. Having changed its whole approach, they are now in the process of moving it more mainstream."

YES - Robert Ray, marketing director, Newspaper Society

"It's regarded by consumers as the most trustworthy medium and it's the one that's most frequently acted upon. This is a dynamic and innovative medium - and it has more to offer advertisers than ever before."

NO - Craig Lennon, associate director, MediaCom Accent

"The regionals say that they aren't in as bad a state as the national newspapers. Yes. Well done. But that isn't really the point, is it? How long does circulation decline have to go on for before the medium sees it as a serious issue?"

YES - Gary McNish, managing director, Amra

"At Amra, we're seeing an ever-increasing number of national advertisers using our medium as the basis of their campaigns, attracted by the innovative solutions and varied platforms we're able to offer them."

YES - Roy Jeans, managing director, Magna Global UK

"This is not a smokestack industry. It's too easy for those sitting in their ivory towers in London media agencies to underestimate the power of regional newspapers. They are an important part of people's lives."

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