Booming regional press proves that old news can be good news

The rapid departure of Sunday Mirror editor Bridget Rowe, within hours of Kelvin Mackenzie’s takeover of the Mirror papers, shows that the man who revealed Freddie Starr’s taste for hamsters is serious about his new role. Mackenzie really is back in newspapers, after five years dabbling in television at BSkyB and LiveTV.

That’s not a very fashionable move these days. Most media executives are so dazzled by broadcasting and the new digital online media, they seem to have forgotten that print, though less glamorous, has a good deal of life, and profit, still in it. And nowhere more so than the least fashionable medium of all – regional newspapers.

Lord Hollick’s United News & Media is the latest group planning to sell off its regional papers to concentrate on its TV investments in ITV and Channel 5. It’s said to be seeking about 400m for the titles, which include the Yorkshire Post and Lancashire Evening Post.

It is following a well-trodden path. Virtually every major multi-media group has pulled out of regional newspapers in the past two years. International Thomson, which for many years owned the largest group of titles, sold them to Trinity. Reed, which once had the fourth largest, sold its papers to Newsquest, as did Pearson – which owned Westminster Press, the fifth largest. EMAP, the eighth largest, sold its regional papers to Johnston Press. And soon United’s titles will have changed hands.

Surely they cannot all be wrong? These big multimedia operators, ever anxious to meet the City’s demands for profits, would not have forsaken the regional press unless they were convinced their money could produce better returns in other ventures. Would they?

Regional press is booming. Circulations, ad revenue and profits of the new regional newspaper groups are going up. And as Chris Oakley, the new head of Mirror Group’s regional newspapers, pointed out last week, that has helped their share prices outperform those of most other quoted media groups. The new big players – Trinity, Newsquest and Johnston – have demonstrated that the medium has great strengths that are helping it to survive.

This is not to say United is wrong to sell now. The fact that the City has recognised these strengths means this is a good time to sell, if United has decided – like Thomson, Reed, Pearson and EMAP – that the regional press is not a business it wants to be in. Yet it must be aware that, so far, the huge sums being invested by companies in new TV channels and online ventures for the digital age have, in most cases, yet to bear fruit.

But is the rush to launch digital media ventures just a matter of fashion? Not according to speeches last week by two significant media figures: John Birt and David Puttnam.

Lord Puttnam, a Labour adviser on media and the arts, was launching the first Bafta Interactive Entertainment Awards, in association with ICL, to be presented later this year. Pre-empting possible criticism from Bafta members, who might question why the British Academy should recognise the likes of Tomb Raider 2 or Dorling Kindersley’s Encyclopedia of Science CD-Rom, he actually suggested (without irony) that those of us hacks who were present would, in years to come, look back on this occasion as one of most important in our careers, and say: “I was there the day they launched the Bafta Interactive Awards”.

That may seem absurd at present, but Puttnam’s speech followed hard on one by the BBC director general, which spelled out his conviction that digital technology will have a huge impact on our lives.

Announcing that the BBC now had the largest Website in Europe, Birt said the Corporation would carry its Reithian ethos of public service into the new digital age. It aimed to become the nation’s leading Web educator, as well as providing new public-service TV channels, such as BBC Learning and News 24.

I put to him the sceptics’ view, that the BBC risks reducing the quality of its existing TV and radio services in order to pay for new ventures that few people may want. He doesn’t buy it. “Any media player who fails to compete in the digital age is doomed to be marginalised,” he argued.

“If you go back to the Thirties there were people in the BBC who argued strongly that the BBC should stay in radio and should not move into television.”

Puttnam said the same was true of Bafta – that the cinema people had opposed the Academy’s move into TV. He pointed out that the industry was constantly changing. The inventor of cinema, Lumière, had seen no commercial potential in it. And now the earnings from a hit video game could outstrip those of many Hollywood films.

All this may be true, but that doesn’t mean older, less “cutting-edge” media must give up. Radio reinvented itself with huge success, despite forecasts that it would be killed by television. Newspapers, national and regional, have also proved remarkably resilient.

What is intriguing is that few media groups seem able – or willing – to succeed in all types of media, regional and national, old and new. The three that have remained faithful to regional newspapers also have national titles: Northcliffe (part of Associated), Mirror Group (which has just bought Midland Independent Newspapers) and The Guardian and Manchester Evening News. Yet each has ventured into television with less success.

Mackenzie returning to newspapers is a reminder that the move from old media to new is not necessarily progress.

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