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April 19, 2012

An impassioned response to Ashley Highfield’s ‘Mumsnet’ vision for Johnston Press

By Dominic Ponsford1

Former regional press journalist and author of the SubScribe blog Liz Gerard has written an impassioned defence of local newspapers and provides a skeptical response to Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield’s ‘Mumsnet’ vision for the future of local titles.

Gerard started out in the regional press and is now night business editor of The Times.

To be fair to Highfield, he is the first non-accountant or sales-person to take charge of a major local newspaper group that I can remember. And it is refreshing to hear some new thinking.

But as Gerard warns, if he forgets that original local reporting is at the bedrock of everything Johnston Press does – the company will be doomed.

This is the future of your local newspapers? To turn them into online versions of Gardening Weekly or Football World? On a national basis? Have you not noticed that there are quite a lot of specialist publications and websites out there? With experts writing them rather than shoestring staffs. Why should anyone turn to the Halifax Courier online edition for gardening tips?
Another part of the strategy is to raise the price of the print editions. “Have you ever wondered why,”  Mr Highfield asks, “we charge 65p for a paper in one part of the country and £1 for a similar product elsewhere. There are many cases where we simply undercharge. Our experience is that price increases do not have an adverse impact on circulation. Consumers will pay up to 95p for a well-produced weekly product.”
Right, so when Rupert Murdoch started his price wars, he got it all wrong did he? He could have raised the price and seen circulations remain the same?

Writing about the future of the local press, Gerard writes:

Local newspapers matter.  Royal Mail is not allowed to give up deliveries to homes just because they are difficult to reach; bus companies are not allowed to abandon rural services and cream off the lucrative urban routes; broadcasters are required to maintain levels of local coverage in return for their licences.
I’m not suggesting that  newspaper businesses should be regulated in the same way – you cannot force a private enterprise to provide a potentially loss-making service – but I am saying that those rules for the mail, the buses and the TV stations are there because local communities matter. It is important that people are able to keep in touch and feel part of the area where they live, to be able to reach friends and neighbours in person or through letters, papers, phone calls and, yes, online social networks.
To produce a decent local newspaper, the reporters need to have proper contact with their readers and the community leaders. They need to go to those boring council meetings, not just to take notes, but to chat to people afterwards, to get the stories behind the stories. They need to maintain contact with the local police, the village shopkeeper. They need to be in court for all cases, not simply when they’ve been tipped off that there’s an important or juicy one coming up. And if they don’t build their contacts they won’t even get the tips for those.

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The full piece is well worth a read.


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