MEDIA: Regional papers fare well in a fragmented industry

Here’s some interesting news. The regional press has just published a relatively healthy set of circulation figures for the first time in years. In Brighton, where the Newspaper Society’s annual advertising conference was in full swing this week, there’s been mild celebration. Overall, the regional sector has not quite managed to move into growth after decades of decline. But it’s on its way.

Here’s some interesting news. The regional press has just published

a relatively healthy set of circulation figures for the first time in

years. In Brighton, where the Newspaper Society’s annual advertising

conference was in full swing this week, there’s been mild celebration.

Overall, the regional sector has not quite managed to move into growth

after decades of decline. But it’s on its way.



The latest six monthly ABC figures (January to June) show only a 0.5 per

cent fall overall, compared with 2.5 per cent for the nationals, and is

achieved against a scenario of media fragmentation affecting the

fortunes of the biggest players such as ITV.



In fact, local papers, have very real strengths, which apply whether you

are a reader, advertiser or PRO. No other medium offers quite the same

access to the grass roots of communities. This is why some are busily

converting their niche knowledge into on-line DAT bases, ready for local

teletext services via digital cable.



The indications are that real growth may be on the cards by next year,

even allowing for recession. Weeklies, ever the strongest sector notched

up a second year of positive circulation growth, 66 per cent of the

titles are up, compared with 59 per cent a year ago. The growth for some

is spectacular: For example, the best performer, East Kent Mercury is up

21 per cent, Hampstead and Highgate Express, up 16 per cent.



The most significant improvements, though, have come from the regional

evening papers, where the rate of decline has been cut to -0.8 per

cent.



Even titles like the Manchester Evening News, after catastrophic falls,

are pulling back. This is largely due to efforts being made towards

improving content, redesigns, and getting close to communities, through

regular campaigns on local issues. I’ve monitored this trend as a

regional newspaper awards judge working across the 400-plus titles

during the past three years.



These moves have been buttressed by the Newspaper Society, which puts a

great deal of effort into marketing the sector as a whole, taking a leaf

out of commercial radio’s book. For instance, it worked with the ABC,

under the leadership of its new, customer-oriented chief executive Simon

Devitt, to bring the figures out a week early, for the conference.



There is a lot of psychological pull: ordinary people feel more isolated

and are buying a local paper as a means of belonging. And such papers

have a double value: local advertising is often sought out every bit as

much as editorial.



All of this is in sharp contrast to the recent, sad decision to close

Channel One, Associated Newspapers’ local cable TV network. It suggests

to me that the more sensible approach to thinking local in the new media

age is to develop electronic services outwards, from strong regional

papers, rather than starting from scratch.



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