SPOTLIGHT ON: REGIONAL NEWSPAPERS - Regionals attempt to market themselves in difficult times/Freesheets are performing better than many paid-for titles, Alasdair Reid writes

There’s never been a better time to go into bat for free newspapers.

There’s never been a better time to go into bat for free


This least glamorous of all media sectors has had a very good year,

largely because of the plaudits deservedly (but often grudgingly) handed

out to Metro, the London commuter free sheet.

All the same, the Newspaper Society might have viewed the publication

last week of regional Audit Bureau of Circulations figures (January to

June averages), which for the first time included verified distribution

figures for regional free sheets, as an occasion of more embarrassment

than rejoicing.

In recent months, the Newspaper Society has been running an ambitious

marketing campaign, including ads featuring ringing endorsements of the

regional press from industry celebrities such as John Bartle, Rupert

Howell and Christine Walker. Nevertheless, when you’re desperately

trying to impress, surely the last thing you want is for your

embarrassing country cousins to crash the party.

But some observers warmly welcome the innovation. Neil Hepburn, the

regional media director of BMP OMD, insists that it will help the

advertising and marketing communities see the sector as a single

coherent market. He states: ’It’s good for the medium that people

understand it’s about more than a handful of big paid-for titles like

the Manchester Evening News. Look at how much money free newspapers take

- they are a fundamental part of the industry. For advertisers, packages

including both free and paid-for titles are pretty cost effective - in

the context of an expensive medium like regional newspapers, that


Ironically, as some regional analysts have been pointing out, the

concurrent release of free-sheet figures is actually helping to mask the

embarrassingly weak performance of most paid-for sectors. The Newspaper

Society marketing campaign took its cue from a belief that regional

publishing is bucking the trend - in contrast to many other media

sectors, its audience is growing.

Some planners and buyers have been sceptical about this - and previous

circulation figures have been ambiguous - but these latest results will

confirm their pessimism. Aggregated circulation increased in only one

regional sector - weeklies - but only by a third of 1 per cent. In all

of the four main sectors - mornings, evenings, Sundays and weeklies -

the percentage of titles showing circulation growth is well down year on

year. And some are alarmingly weak. Last year, for instance, 63 per cent

of morning titles put on sales; this time around, only 31 per cent

showed growth.

For Robert Ray, the joint managing director of MediaVest, this is a

worrying reversal. He says: ’The regional press continues to make much

of its performance relative to other media but the big story last time

around was that the regional press had not only stabilised but had

turned itself around. I think this proves that last year’s good figures

were a blip on the regional pressometer. In truth, there is a long-term

and continuing decline in the marketplace.’

The industry has had much to occupy its mind in recent months, notably

continued sporadic acquisition activity which has led to titles being

merged or closed. And some publishers are known to be waiting for the

fall-out from the Trinity merger with Mirror Group before taking a view

on the short-term health or otherwise of the medium.

But there is one universally acknowledged priority - the internet - and

the signs are that regional publishers are grasping the nettle.

According to Ray, that has to be welcomed. ’The internet has to play a

big part in the long-term strategy,’ he insists. ’Although it’s never

wise to take a simplistic view of the regional press, you’d have to say

that the potential looks to be in the weeklies market. But they have to

look at the internet too - they have realised the potential of a lot of

classified advertising to disappear on to the web. They have to ensure

that when it does, it goes on to their own sites.’