The new owner of regional newspaper the Sunday Independent has said he is looking to add more titles to his portfolio in a bid to provide “complete, in-depth coverage” across the West Country.
Businessman Peter Masters swooped in to save the 200-year-old title two weeks after it had published its last edition in April, saving 17 jobs at its headquarters in Cornwall.
He claims the paper is “basically running at a profit” after he negotiated a debt restructure with administrators and upped its cover price by 20p to £1.20, adding that it has seen a “4 per cent rise in readership since April”.
Earlier this month Masters also bought the View From newspaper series, comprising eight papers and three magazines serving the West Country, after owners Capital Media Newspapers went into administration.
The free papers are produced in Lyme Regis, West Dorset, with a team of 31 people – including about 18 editorial staff. They have a total distribution of about 40-45,000 copies, according to Masters.
Despite his fresh stake in the news media industry, the Truro City FC chairman said his only relevant publishing experience is in marketing, but that one of his “fortés” is “turning around companies”.
“It isn’t going to stop here,” he told Press Gazette.
“We are looking to add some more titles on to it and we are eyeing up several candidates at the moment. What I’m looking to do is get complete, in-depth coverage mid-week and weekends all around the West Country, giving people what they want.”
He said his plans for the Sunday Independent – which publishes four editions covering Devon, Cornwall, Bristol and Plymouth – are to up circulation by 20-25,000 to increase its presence across the West Country.
It currently has a weekly circulation of about 12,000, according to Masters.
“At the moment it is a case of let’s look at this paper,” he said. “We are going expand into the areas of Dorset and Somerset first and then get up to Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and from that point of view let’s see the circulation.”
He added: “If we are selling piles of papers we can turn a loss making paper into profit. It’s all about getting those sales up.”
While he has said he is keen on “putting modern technology into the business” including looking at boosting its online presence, his primary focus appears to be print.
“Investment in newsprint is what is going to bring in the readers,” he told Press Gazette.
“You can’t keep cutting things. The [business] model has been to cut staff, but it just doesn’t work. We have got to find out why papers aren’t selling and react to it and go for it.”
He added: “If you look on your phone now you will see all the news coming up, but at some point you what to sit and relax and pick up a newspaper. I personally enjoy reading newspapers, as I do reading books. I don’t like reading books through a digital device.”
Masters claims both the Sunday Independent and View From series newspapers were not in themselves loss making, but had been “saddled” with overheads and debt largely acquired under former owners Tindle Newspapers.
“If you say the titles have been struggling I would disagree there,” he said. “What has been struggling is behind the titles. All the titles are good, but they have been saddled with debt and the debt is mainly due to the Tindle links involved.”
He said overheads at Capital Media Newspapers’ London operation – which published the South London Press and Greenwich Mercury (since sold on) – had been “crippling” its Lime Regis operation.
And he said the Sunday Independent had been “lacking investment”.
“They were saddled with overheads and debt – now they have broken free. They were both bought out of administration and on very simple terms. We have all the good bits and, importantly, we have got very skilled staff,” he said.
“We are nimble and we are coming in fresh. We have got the titles, we have got rid of their massive overheads and we can be quick thinking and moving on our feet, which is great. We have brought in a machine that has operated from 2017 onwards, not 1977.”
Phil Evans, former managing director and group editor of Capital Media Newspapers, is now on Masters’ roster of staff and he said he is still recruiting, having also hired a business development manager.
Masters said of his approach to running a newspaper business: “It’s all about cutting the garment according to the cloth and putting the investment in as well. What you can’t do is keep cutting people and expect the quality of the paper to stay high – the quality will go down and down.”
He added: “I have seen a couple of the [regional publisher’s business] models and from what I have seen, they are saddled with basically a lot of employees that may have been paid a lot of money over a period of time.
“They have got pensions and high salaries to pay. It works if the paper can stand it, but the reality is it won’t make money. Also, if you have got big buildings and offices you will end up losing money – simple as that.
“We have got staff who are well paid, by today’s standards, we have got buildings which have fairly reasonable overheads, and we have got a product which we know we can sell and has been selling, but we have got a business model at the moment that we are content with.
“The trick now is to increase that circulation and advertising revenue and that’s what we want to do.”
He said he had no plans to cut pagination on the titles, saying: “When I look at papers during the week, I see papers going down to 32 or 40 pages. The [Sunday] Indy started off at 80 pages and that’s it.
“They asked me if I wanted it going down to 40 pages, as is usual at this time of year, but I said ‘no’. Eighty pages is the line in the sand.
“I think what has happened is before I got to the Indy was cut, cut, cut and I think it was already running, I would say, below what was comfortable for the staff. It was getting out, but there was no room for error, let’s put it that way.
“With the Indy and with the View From series we are looking now across the whole of that area, the whole of the staff and realising the best approach for each of the papers.”
He said it was important to give readers a “quality newspaper” and “value for money” as well as building relationships with advertisers.
“The answer will be if I’m here in four months time, you’ll know I got it right,” he added. “If not, you’ll know full well it didn’t work. But I’m confident.
“I don’t get involved with things I don’t have any confidence or passion in. And I have a lot of passion for both papers at the moment.”