A fresh direction that may be a Brum steer

Newspaper relaunches are exciting and expensive.

Get it right and you can halt decline, hang on to existing readers, but also attract new customers more attractive to your advertisers. Get it wrong and you may well have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

The eyes of the industry have been firmly trained on Birmingham for many years — and even more so since the Mail's £1 million relaunch in October of last year.

Rumours began circulating shortly after that all had not gone according to plan — and this was borne out in the last set of ABCs with a minus 11.9 per cent figure.

So what's gone right — and what's gone wrong?

The plan seemed sensible enough: extra pagination, extra editions to cover the huge and disparate geographic patch, extra district offices and extra journalists (which is where the expensive bit comes in).

The redesign was definitely revolution rather then evolution and this caused the first unexpected blip. A large chunk of existing readers didn't like it.

In fact, nearly 8,000 of those readers left in the first few weeks — which was not in the plan. Yes, they were primarily elderly C2DEs — and the new-look has become more appealing to young, more up-market readers — but you still would not want to lose them.

The Mail has also suffered from the problems afflicting the rest of the sector — an advertising slump and readers migrating elsewhere for content.

Some jobs supplements have had just 16 pages — and Birmingham had a higher percentage of its ad revenue coming from lucrative sits than any other centre in the country.

Expecting readers to pay an extra 5p for a radically different paper (in fact the new masthead was so different that Birmingham appears to have underestimated how many people thought it was a completely new title) and giving them less advertising has been a bit of a double whammy.

But Trinity Mirror has stuck with the senior people who oversaw the relaunch, even though Sly Bailey told them that she might as well have burned £1 million in notes for all the extra readers it has given her.

In fact just a quarter of that sum was spent on traditional marketing of the new paper. Newsprint for the seven editions plus reopened district offices does not come cheap.

And it may have helped that the industry is facing such a threat to traditional revenue streams that the Birmingham circulation figures pale more into insignificance in the quest to hit the bottom line across the country.

The latest word on the street is that the current readers like the extra local news, but that the ABC figures will get worse before they get better.

I'VE ALWAYS been slightly sceptical of newspaper research, particularly when it involves focus groups, but the most interesting results are often discovering which stories in the paper are of most interest to readers.

Unless it's a very quiet news day (or you work for The Independent), most splashes instinctively leap out to the decision makers.

You then follow a format of a possible light, quirky page three, harder page five, news feature on an early DPS etc and go home hoping it's been a job well done.

Research can tell you, though, that the story of most interest to the majority of readers (i.e. scored highest by them in terms of what they got most out of) fell much further back in the paper, and the splash was of cursory appeal.

Thomson Regional Newspapers carried out this exercise on the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle about 10 years ago and discovered that the front-page lead of counterfeit £20 notes was only mildly interesting compared with the sidebar which told you how to spot a fake.

No real surprises there, but the story that came top overall was tucked away on something like page 15 (of a then broadsheet).

It concerned a local copper who was hospitalised after burning himself with a fondue set he had received as a wedding pressie and dusted off from the attic.

When probed, readers said they liked the "it could be me"

element, as clearly fondue sets were gathering dust all over the Northeast. They also liked that someone in power had got his comeuppence — although I should add that he was only slightly injured.

This research came back to me on holiday last month when a group of friends bought a national newspaper every day and passed it around the group.

In two weeks, the one story we all picked up, deliberately got off the sunbed to share with others, and generally had a good collective laugh over, was in The Times on Saturday, 27 May.

There on page 46, under the World News banner was the headline "Poll hackers snarl up the election of ugliest dog" accompanied by some fantastic snaps of said canines.

Essentially it was a story of an online poll-rigging scandal at the World's Ugliest Dog Competition.

Hopefully this did not fall into the "It could be me" category, but the pictures were so unusual and so funny that we giggled about it on and off throughout the day.

It may have been on page 46, but The Times knew it was on to a good thing and used one of the headshots in a front-page plug.

There may be talk of the paper dumbing down in its new format, but the splash that day was an investigation into the alleged US marines' revenge massacre in an Iraqi village, which has caused anxiety for the Bush administration.

All round a perfect front page, I would say.

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