REGIONAL PRESS: BUILDING UP THE BRAND - Regional newspapers are growing their commercial offerings, primarily through sponsorship

Alasdair Reid speaks to three editors about hitting the right tone for advertisers and readers.

Sponsorship established itself in the national press when Microsoft sponsored a whole edition of The Times for the launch of Windows 95. Since then, Pepsi has done the same with the Daily Mirror, and it is common to see editorial and ad sales teams co-operating to extend the commercial reach of the medium. This can mean everything from advertorials and promotions to sponsored sections and supplements.

The regionals, though, often seem to take a more old-fashioned approach to this whole area, with journalists tending to see it as a potential threat to their independence. But are things now changing?

Mike Gilson, the editor of Portsmouth's newspaper, The News, says in general, editors have increasingly realised that they must have a good relationship with the commercial side.

"The simple fact is that the dream you have won't fly unless you get enthusiasm from downstairs, and equally there is no reason not to be enthusiastic about something that wasn't of your originating," he states. "The sooner you're involved, the more opportunity you have to shape the editorial."

Gilson is clearly more comfortable talking about initiatives where the editorial side was able to make most of the running, but he admits that journalists now have to have a far more sophisticated understanding of the way that advertisers see the world.

"Sponsorship is something we are keen on," he adds. "We have sponsored business awards, for instance. And we are aware of the possibilities of a whole range of things. If an advertiser comes in for a campaign, there are promotion possibilities too. We take the view that in giving an added reader service it can aid (copy) sales as well as being attractive from the advertiser's point of view."

Perhaps the best example is the way the company has been exploring a possible future venture. The advertising side had begun to identify categories of advertiser for whom the paper wasn't providing the right sort of environment, so a special team containing both advertising and editorial staff was set up. No concrete decisions have been taken yet - and the current economic conditions may not exactly be ideal - but the company is now looking at launching a glossy lifestyle supplement. "It's a case where advertising first identified a need, and where the two sides have shown they can work closely together," Gilson says.

Geoff Martin, the editor of the north London paper Ham and High, sounds a cautious note, especially with regard to promotions. He states: "This side of the business has widened considerably in recent years. It can cause difficulties where there are conflicting interests between the editorial and commercial sides, but here we have a clear policy whereby planned promotions have to go past my desk and be agreed - the copy is vetted and signed off. It's when there are no editorial controls that there can be conflict. But that's very much up to editors and publishers themselves.

I think some people have memories of that Hoover promotion a few years back, which promised free travel (it went horribly wrong because Hoover didn't do its sums right and demand was far greater than it had bargained for). That was a lesson for us all."

Martin agrees, though, that when this sort of thing is done right, it can add value, be a bit of fun and generate reader interest. Reader involvement is particularly important, he points out, especially in these days of the internet where everything is interactive. It's vital that everyone thinks about ways to get readers more involved - as long as the editorial stance isn't compromised.

Martin concludes: "At my previous paper in Belfast, we linked up with a local ferry company for a travel promotion. We were the first in Northern Ireland to do so. It was done on a voucher basis and it was great for our readers. The ferry company was packed at a time of year when it normally wouldn't have been, and we got good editorial out of it too."

Talking of Belfast, the Belfast Telegraph has been something of a pioneer in this area and its list of previous and existing commercial partners is impressive. For instance, Mag-ners Original Irish Cider has been a sponsor of the paper's entertainment section. In the past - bravely, all things considered - Orange has been associated with the business section. Its Budget Day coverage is backed by Ernst & Young and the Belfast Telegraph Northern Ireland Business Awards are run in partnership with Energia.

The paper's editor, Ed Curran, comments: "I think we have to take a leaf out of TV's book. For instance, TV has no problems with all the sponsors associated with a sporting event. We in the newspaper industry should reflect that. For the World Cup last year in Japan and Korea, the question was how we could afford to send anyone to cover it. We did a tie-in with one of the event's major sponsors, Budweiser, which meant we could send out our own reporters. Reports were carried in association with the sponsor. We are looking to do the same for the rugby World Cup."

He says he would draw the line at any sponsorship of the paper's main news pages but as long as an initiative doesn't encroach on the newspaper or its journalism, he doesn't have a problem with it.

In fact, he believes this is an area whose time has come. "I think this is a considerable issue for newspapers all round, and one we could be doing more to address. You often hear journalists saying they never have enough space to devote to niche interests. For instance, a sports editor might complain that there's not enough space for golf. The answer is to have sponsored golf pages. That is certainly the route we are proposing to follow. It's surprising, really, but a lot of people haven't tapped into this yet."