The regional press has shown rude health in recent years. Its image has been boosted by the recovery and stabilisation of circulation over the past four years, which has led to consolidation of the industry and an increased profile within the City.
Some regional publishers, such as Trinity, have even taken the step of exploring sophisticated marketing methods, which would not look out of place at the best packaged goods manufacturers, in order to drive the newly-recognised power of their brands.
The days have gone when regional press owners creamed off the lucrative revenue and ploughed it into other business interests. Consolidation in the industry has witnessed the rise of strong companies which see a future in regional press.
It is this development which may yet help the sector overcome one of its greatest difficulties. Its down-at-heel image has always thwarted attempts to persuade agencies and their clients to increase its share of the national advertising market.
Regional press is the second largest advertising medium after TV, attracting 20 per cent of UK ad expenditure in 1997 the equivalent of 2.2bn.
Yet it has only four per cent or 240m of the national display advertising market. And this market is far more stable than the recession-prone classified advertising that makes up the bulk of local papers’ ad revenues.
The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations reveal that two-thirds (65 per cent) of all titles increased sales for the period July to December 1998, compared with 56 per cent for the same period in 1997 and 45 per cent in 1996.
Last month, The Newspaper Society, the regional press’ trade body, launched a campaign aimed at addressing the industry’s image problem. The ads feature senior media business figures airing their reservations about the sector.
One such figure is Rupert Howell, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising president and chairman of HHCL & Partners. He believes the sector is going through a similar process of change to that undergone by the radio industry three years ago.
Howell says: “Regional press should ensure decent reproduction quality. There also has to be a cost effective way of supplying advertising to the numerous publications.”
Poor production problems may remain, but buying space in regionals, through the 20 or so sales houses, looks likely to contract due to further industry consolidation.
Trinity and Regional Independent Media are still vying for ownership of the Mirror Group. Newsquest is one of a number of regional publishers circling Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers. Hollinger International, which owns The Daily Telegraph, is understood to be interested in Trinity. Consolidation looks inevitable, and with it a reduction in sales points.
The top 20 publishers account for 76 per cent of all regional and local newspaper titles in the UK and 92 per cent of the total weekly audited circulation.
Newspaper Society marketing director Chris Stanley says: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the largest ten publishers own 85 to 90 per cent of the circulation of regional newspapers within a couple of years.”
Some observers say that if regionals want to develop the market they need to get higher up the agency food chain.
Head of regional media at Media-Vest Geraldine Cruse comments: “Regionals need to speak to the strategic planners and the senior agency people who make decisions on how clients’ money is spent, rather than just specialist press buyers.”
Chris Oakley, chief executive of local paper group Regional Independent Media, takes up this point: “The main problem for regional press is our invisibility in London. If you live and work in London you are not aware of the strength of regional newspaper brands, such as our own Yorkshire Post or some of the Trinity and Newsquest titles.”
But some advertisers will never be suited to regional press, claims Zenith regional media director Cathy Richards. She says: “All the research shows they are very good at directional advertising, and that local newspapers are used in a different way to national press or TV. They should stick to those strengths, and if they are looking at packaged goods advertisers they should consider tie-ins with retailers.”
However, The Word, a sales house set up to attract national campaigns for the regional press, claims success it has secured branded ads from Volkswagen and Toyota.
Some newspapers are not only seeking a greater share of the national advertising market but also investigating additional revenue sources, such as brand spin-offs. Trinity has just hired brand consultancy The Marketing Works to look at the brand strengths of its major titles, including the Evening Chronicle and The Journal.
Jane Nugent, marketing director of Newcastle and Journal, says: “We were trying to be a bit more sophisticated, to see how much the brands are worth and how people perceive them.”
Simon Strutt, The Marketing Works managing director, says: “Local newspapers are such strong brands and are considered by readers to be trustworthy. On this basis, they could go into financial services, and possibly look at entertainment and pubs.”
With major regional publishers investing in their brands, the Newspaper Society’s ad campaign plus other lobbying activities, this sector is again attempting to convince a sceptical media industry it is a powerful branding tool. It could be a bumpy ride.