Mr Toad helps sales drive

Just as bingo was the new idea helping national newspapers entice readers 20-odd years ago, free CDs are today’s marketing manager’s mantra.

This summer saw these giveaways boost papers like The Mail on Sunday , and are even credited with pushing the sales of the Sunday Express back above that magical million mark for just the second time in a year.

The Express Group has also had recent success with free and discounted hardback books, and Murdoch’s New York Post has jumped on the book bandwagon by giving away US classics such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Regional papers may look on enviously at the sales lifts, but will ask two questions: how much is it all costing, and can you sustain any of the sale? So far none has been tempted to join this expensive giveaway club in any meaningful way – until the Midlands decided to grasp the nettle.

The editor of the Birmingham Evening Mail, Roger Borrell, has changed the paper significantly for the better, but is still finding the area a difficult nut to crack in terms of circulation, down 8.6 per cent in the latest ABCs. And although its smaller sister title, the Coventry Evening Telegraph, is more stable, it still saw its ABC figure drop by –7.5%.

Part of the Trinity Mirror regional group, both papers have a sophisticated marketing and promotions department to back them up, and you can imagine they have been on top of, and tried, most potential solutions to get the papers into readers’ hands.

But their autumn push has seen them take the plunge into the free/discounted book arena – with positive successes to date.

The promotion lasts a whopping 25 weeks – enough time, the papers hope, to make a difference and either bag new readers or get existing ones to buy more regularly.

Week one saw The Wind in the Willows being given away free with a voucher from either title.

In subsequent weeks the books will be available at the heavily discounted price of £3, still using the voucher system.

The group sensibly decided to go for quality hardbacks with glossy covers, and titled the collection Great Family Reads. These include The Jungle Book, The Color Purple, and The Lives and Loves of a She Devil.

The promotion has been a first on several counts. No regional paper has entered this arena on this scale before, and it is being watched closely by the industry.

It is also the first time the Midlands has had a joint promotion on this scale with its two evening papers. One of the benefits is obtaining maximum geographic exposure when buying expensive TV advertising, which they costed into the launch.

It has also been a massive logistical exercise – buying the books in advance and distributing and collecting them on a weekly basis from newsagents.

But so far so good. Although the group is being cagey with specific figures so early on in the promotion, there was a massive lift in week one when the book was free.

The expected drop in subsequent weeks has been less steep than could have been anticipated, and the view is that people do get locked into buying the complete collection once they have committed for the first four weeks.

Other successes include the fact that the first week did better than the launch of the New York Post’s promotion (mentioned before) which is working with the same Belgian company, Paperview.

And copies of Wind in the Willows turned up on eBay quickly, selling for £1, so canny Midlands people are happy to make a fast buck out of a freebie. One can only hope they spent longer reading the accompanying newspaper.

A few years ago the Guild of Editors had a crisis of identity and cashflow and decided some radical steps needed to be taken.

Changing its stuffy name to the Society of Editors was one of the new measures, but, more importantly, it made a concerted attempt to attract senior people from broadcasting as well as those on national newspapers.

One should not underestimate this challenge. The guild was, until that point, very much associated with respectable middle-aged men from the regional press, and concerned itself almost exclusively with issues which affected them.

How times have changed. This year’s annual conference in Newcastle was a parade of the great and the good in broadcasting.

The scene was set on the opening night by former ITN chief Stuart Purvis being the first person from the broadcasting world to give the society’s prestigious annual lecture.

It continued with Purvis brilliantly chairing a session which included the BBC’s deputy director general Mark Byford, ITV News Group’s chief executive Clive Jones and Sky News’ associate editor Simon Bucks.

Other sessions had Radio Four’s Today programme editor Kevin Marsh and Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne baring their souls.

On the national newspaper front there were funny and self-deprecating turns from the News of the World’s Andy Coulson and the Financial Times ‘ Andrew Gowers.

And the society is now sufficiently influential to entice the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens and the Tory leader Michael Howard to give keynote speeches.

For the regional newspaper delegates, they were able to hear Northcliffe Electronic Publishing boss Keith Perch tell them to sharpen up their act in what, thanks to his internet clips and stills, was the funniest presentation of the conference.

There were more lessons to be learned on Freedom of Information and law updates, but this was definitely not a conference aimed exclusively at regional editors, as it might have once been in the past.

If one was to pick up on any criticism from this sector, it was the shame that nobody from the regional press was deemed slick or sexy enough to chair any of the seven sessions.

It was understandable to see Purvis chairing “A Big Year for Broadcasting” and ITV’s Alistair Stewart doing a great job presenting a mixed panel on “What Makes a Good Journalist”.

But it was slightly less obvious why ITV’s Nicholas Owen was chairing a session on how some regional papers are bouncing back.

Book appeal: the two papers hope readers will get locked into buying the complete collection

More perplexing was Channel 4 News’ Alex Thomson chairing the important FoI debate and cheerfully admitting he was personally unable to provide some pretty basic information about the vital parts of the Bill which come into force on 1 January.

On the bright side, it was during this session that the Lord Chancellor made the significant and welcome announcement regarding the lack of charges for FoI requests.

The society’s executive director Bob Satchwell, who had had a great conference by anyone’s standards even up to this point, nearly spontaneously combusted with pride.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

Next week: Chris Shaw

by Alison Hastings

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