“I’m ancient,” says Stephen Parker as he settles into his chair in the Trinity Mirror boardroom on the 21st floor of One Canada Square, Canary Wharf.
The managing director of regional titles at Trinity has just become president of The Newspaper Society, the medium’s trade body, and shifts to the highest chair in the room, in line with his newly exalted position.
Being ancient (even if he is being a little hard on himself) is perhaps not the greatest qualification for the president of a society trying to convince the industry of its ability to compete in the modern media age. Recent criticism has centred on the failure of regional newspapers to attract new, younger readers and to drive the sector forward as a powerful advertising tool in a multimedia world.
Roy Jeans, the managing director of global media-buying house Magna and a strong supporter of the regional press, recently accused regional newspaper bosses of failing to back The Newspaper Society, which, he said, has been left in the position of simply “managing decline”.
Decline and regional newspapers are, across some frequencies at least, becoming synonymous.
The most recent ABC results showed weeklies on the increase but regional dailies, often the flagship titles within local businesses, appear to be in terminal decline.
The top ten regional papers – which include titles such as the Manchester Evening News and the Wolverhampton Express and Star – saw sales fall by an average 4% in the sixmonth period ending 2003, compared to the previous period.
Agency planners and buyers set out their concerns when the most recent figures were released, warning that advertisers were beginning to wipe the regional press off their schedules.
Many believe that a daily, local, paid-for paper is becoming an irrelevance in a multimedia society. The rise of Metro has drawn a young audience to local news, but the free title is threatening the existence of many paid-for brands. While regional titles have made steps towards extending their brands online and, through the NS’ recent effectiveness study, proven to national advertisers the power of the medium, for many the rot has already set in.
So can the “ancient” Preston-born Parker use his 22 years experience in the sector to overhaul its entrenched perceptions? Parker admits that there are challenges in the sector at the moment, but says that overall it is in a good state. “In a general sense, I take over when the regional press has probably never been in better shape,” he says.
And, indeed, there is plenty to shout about.
Advertising across the regional press has weathered the storm of recession and is about to become a £3bn industry this year, according to the latest Advertising Association figures.
Parker rolls off a long list of statistics reflecting a healthy and buoyant ad market: the regional press has its highest total share of all advertising since 1995 (17%) and highest share of press advertising (35.6%) since 1982.
Even national advertising is on the up, with national display ads reaching its highest market share (6.5%) of all press display since 1994.
Unilever pledged to spend £5m across the medium in a landmark deal last year. The advertising figures are great, so why isn’t the industry shouting about them? The criticism of the regional press is that it lacks self-esteem.
Jeans said: “The medium needs more selfbelief – even arrogance.”
Parker can only agree. “As an industry, we need to be more effective in getting our message across and competing with other media.
“The Newspaper Society does recognise that the marketing initiative we launched a few years ago has stalled.We need to pick up speed and focus on getting the key messages across, because we do have a good story to tell, and also listen to the concerns people have voiced and respond to those.”
The loss of two marketing directors at The Newspaper Society in one year could be seen as being a little careless. First, David Hoath left, to be replaced by brash Aussie firebrand Russell Collier; allegedly, Collier’s desire to bring the society kicking and screaming into the modern age hastened his departure.
Parker says that The Newspaper Society is seeking a replacement for Collier and hopes the position will be filled by the end of the year, but will not be drawn on the reasons surrounding his departure.
He admits that the organisation is currently run by people like himself who are, at the very least, middle aged (he is 51). The interview is peppered with quips about his youthfulness and knowledge of the modern world – “I should have brought my BlackBerry”; “I have a six-year old son, you know” – but he acknowledges that the reality is that the society risks presenting a face to the industry which is at odds with its message.
“The perception of industry will be based on the people who represent it, and by and large you do not often see young people representing the industry,” he says.
But the difficulty, he admits, is that the power of the sector to some extent lies in its old-fashioned nature; championing local issues is, at times, at odds with the global nature of today’s world.
“I think one of the strengths of The Newspaper Society is potentially its weakness,” he says. “It represents newspapers that have been around for very many years – in some cases 150 years – and are an integral part of the communities they serve. The problem with that, and with the fact that they are newsprint, is that it’s difficult to move away from the perception that you’re not part of the future.
“It’s something The Newspaper Society needs to address, but we need to be careful that, in responding to the future, we don’t lose sight of the sector’s strength and value.”
Parker’s passion for the local cause is infectious.
He began his career, quite improbably in the same way as Margaret Thatcher began her’s, with a PhD in chemistry.
“I stayed on to do research because I wanted to do something that might make a difference,” he says. “When I decided to move into regional press, what attracted me was that a well-run regional press business will make a difference to the community it serves. I think it’s important that someone campaigns to have a lollipop lady.”
And he believes that fundamental role of being champion of communities and aligning itself to them has not changed at all in his 20 years in the business.
“Someone has to do it and we are best equipped. We sustain the highest degree of trust across media.”
People are still adamantly local, he says.
“Every survey The Newspaper Society has produced shows that, by and large, people still work, live and shop in a tightly-defined area.”
Parker believes that sending the right messages is a key part of what The Newspaper Society needs to focus on, but he is keen to emphasise substance as well as style.
“We need to address the question of what target audiences we’re trying to appeal to and whether we have an appropriate communications strategy.”
Attracting young people to the industry is difficult, he says, when they are not normally readers of regional press.
“Our task is to make them understand that we can offer exciting careers and it’s not just newspapers,” he says.
To some degree, the London-centric nature of advertising and media means that key clients and agency planners and buyers are often unfamiliar with the power of local press.
“Living in London can offer limited experience of the regional press,” he says. “When you go into the communities, you can see the strength of the brand.”
Parker has spent most of his career in the regions, primarily Merseyside and the North East, and is confident that the sector will face up to its current challenges. Projects include an overhaul of regional newspapers’ direct distribution network and a consultation on how they need to change to deal with new distribution outlets such as supermarkets.
He says regional companies need to accelerate the pace at which they take on new media. “We need to recognise that we are a local info provider, there are very different routes to market and we can offer those routes through different means,” he says.
As the sector continues to consolidate, he wants the competition authorities to “take a wider view of what constitutes competition in our market,” and is keen to continue to work towards attracting more national advertising to the medium.
“We’re now seeing the fruits of the Unilever deal, as it opens wider opportunities for us,” he says. “We haven’t got the argument across that we’re not just a tactical medium. We can also be used to influence brand perception.”
Above all, the medium needs to wake up to the realities of the immensely competitive media world in which these ancient forms of media now operate.
“We have to recognise that the market for newspaper sales overall is more competitive,” he says. “The nationals are more aggressive.
But we need to focus on the fact that, while we may be offering smaller prizes, we offer local winners – and that’s the key”
2004 President The Newspaper Society
2000 Managing director of regional newspapers Trinity Mirror
1999 Executive director of regional newspapers Trinity Mirror
1993 Appointed to Trinity Mirror board
1985 Commercial assistant managing director Trinity Weekly Newspapers UK
1982 Circulation and marketing positions Thomson Regional Newspapers