Regionals must pull together

Despite optimistic claims, recent ABC data paints a rather unflattering picture of the regionals’ position. They must work together to survive. By George Pitcher. George Pitcher is chief executive of issue management consultancy Luther Pendrag

The regional newspaper industry in the UK presents a conundrum. On the one hand, it displays the kind of optimistic chutzpah more readily associated with today’s Conservative Party – making a virtue of slowing the rate of decline. On the other hand, it contains some booming companies.

Meanwhile, regional newspapers are capable of forming a consolidated front for purposes of declaring their relative performances, but remain unable or unwilling to examine their market positions against competition in their regions from national newspapers. This is especially odd since so many of the regionals are owned by national newspaper publishers such as United News & Media, Associated Newspapers and Mirror Group, whose interest in providing advertisers with accurate readership analyses ought to outweigh local jealousies.

The consolidated bit comes from the joint Newspaper Society/Audit Bureau of Circulations survey, which last month offered the first simultaneous release of all regional press ABC data (for the period July to December 1996). This was a historic moment and the industry was not about to miss an opportunity to sound upbeat.

The regional newspaper industry consequently pegged its “healthier picture” theme on the somewhat flakey notions that the percentage of titles to show an increase in sales had risen year-on-year from 29 per cent to 45 per cent and that the historic rate of decline in the industry had slowed by one third, from a fall of 2.2 per cent in 1995 to a drop of 1.5 per cent in 1996.

Just before the champagne began to flow in celebration of the news that it was taking slightly longer than expected for regional newspapers to disappear, a realistic note was struck by Chris Stanley, the Newspaper Society’s marketing director: “There is no escaping the fact that sales of local newspapers are marginally down – this is the biggest challenge for our industry.”

Stanley is right in saying that regional press performance must be seen in the context of the whole industry, in which all mainstream media are facing audience loss (such is the price of pluralism). And, it must be said, there are some bright spots. More than 50 per cent of paid-for-weeklies, for example, built sales during the period, compared with 31.7 per cent in 1995. Furthermore, regional mornings were brighter for the industry, with more than 50 per cent of morning titles recording sales increases, against 17.7 per cent the previous year.

The black spots were regional Sundays and evenings, with the former declining 3.3 per cent year on year, and the latter only marginally slowing decline from 2.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent.

There are, in an industry which measures success in terms of slowing decline, some medals to hand out. The Oxford Mail is the fastest-growing UK regional evening paper, raising sales in the period by six per cent; the Irish News is the fastest-growing morning paper at 5.5 per cent; Scotland on Sunday, in a dismal market generally, turned in a staggering 14.9 per cent growth and the largest rise of all was the weekly (and snappily titled) Northallerton, Thirsk & Bedale Times at 16.8 per cent.

A real test for regional papers, as with all press, will come when cable television providers have got their act together and when the forthcoming digital terrestrial TV onslaught is underway. In this context, it is disappointing that the British press industry as a whole has not found itself capable of establishing common ground for sales data analysis, in the manner of the ABC regionals survey.

Nearly three years of negotiations between National Readership Surveys and regional research outfit Jicreg, which would have created a common basis for calculating national newspaper readership figures and their regional equivalents, collapsed in the New Year. NRS blamed Jicreg for protecting commercially sensitive information, while Jicreg blamed the “bully boys of the Newspaper Publishers Association”, which represents national newspapers, for blocking a deal. In the light of the threat to revenues in a declining industry – and the aforementioned interests in the regions held by national newspaper groups – this sort of in-fighting looks, at best, babyish.

It’s also a shame, because there are some really great companies in the regional sector of the British press. Take Trinity International, the UK’s largest regional newspaper group. It more than doubled pre-tax profits last year to 56.2m, following the integration of titles acquired from Thomson International. With newsprint prices stabilising and classified sales picking up, Trinity is set fair. But the shares, at about the 500p mark, trade at a 35 per cent premium to the market, so it is fair to say that Trinity’s potential is no secret in the City.

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