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May 6, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:15am

‘I don’t want to be the CEO that shuts titles’: Archant’s Lorna Willis is on a mission to save local journalism

By Freddy Mayhew

New Archant CEO Lorna Willis may have been promoted from within, but she has the revolutionary verve of an outsider. Her mission: to save local news.

Willis could be described as unconventional – she speaks a mile a minute, moving between commercial insights and impassioned pleas about the need to protect local titles, with a frankness uncommon among her peers.

“They didn’t go with a suit,” she tells me of her appointment to run the UK’s fourth largest local newspaper group.

Her task is to pick the Norwich-based publisher back up off the ground after it was bought by private equity firm Rcapital last summer in a Company Voluntary Arrangement deal which saw shareholders wiped out and the £50m pension fund deficit taken over by the government.

The deal was an alternative to liquidation. Two of Archant’s holding companies were forced into administration as a result.

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One of four children, Willis grew up in Suffolk reading local paper the East Anglian Daily Times, a flagship Archant daily. “My dream was to work in newspapers and local press,” she says. “I’d love to have been a journalist [but] I can’t write for toffee.”

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Instead, Willis turned to “the next best thing” and joined the commercial side of the news business, taking a job as a sales executive at the Financial Times in 1998, which meant she could “do something that can enable newspapers to be successful”.

After two years with the FT she took up a sales management role at the Guardian, where she stayed for eight years and “learnt my craft in digital”. She joined Archant in 2010, after a year working for cancer charity Macmillan, serving as its digital sales director, then executive director for digital, data and insight, and finally chief client officer.

Now, aged 45, Willis is pulling the strings at the local news publisher she dreamed of working for – it’s the “opportunity of a lifetime” she says – but it couldn’t have come at a more difficult time.

‘Hierarchies are problematic in a business like ours’

Even before the pandemic hit, Archant, like much of the local press, was facing difficulties. In 2018, its last full-year accounts before the takeover, Archant dived into the red with a pre-tax loss of £7.6m on turnover of £87.3m, down 10% on the year before.

It led the group, which owns some 50 local newspapers and the same number of magazines, to undertake a restructure of its commercial department, building a team adept at digital and putting the focus back on serving advertisers with a return on their investment.

The restructure began in Norfolk, Archant’s headquarters, and was in the process of being rolled out across its other offices when Covid-19 arrived in the UK – “that was a bit of a nightmare”. Still Archant pushed ahead and applied the same sales floor changes to its magazine division.

In all up to 50 roles have been cut with 33 new jobs created. The process of filling them is still ongoing.

“It’s tough because we’re asking people to become digital marketing experts, [it’s a] learning curve, and there’s always going to be resistance to that,” says Willis. “Some people have said: ‘That’s brilliant, I’m all in.’ Some people said: ‘It’s not for me.’ and that’s okay.”

During the pandemic, Archant, along with many other news titles, has been forced to furlough staff, although it has not made any pay cuts. Archant’s executive team was cut from seven to three at the first lockdown. Some 25 jobs have been lost over the period, which Willis says were the result of “natural attrition” rather than redundancies.

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Installed as chief executive in March, Willis is setting about restructuring Archant into three divisions: local (news), magazines and agency.

“I want each of those areas to be able to thrive in their own right but also be accountable,” she says. “What I wanted to do was flatten the structure. I think hierarchies are problematic in a business like ours. I think it’s really important that people are close to what’s happening.”

But in restructuring the business, Willis says job losses will be unavoidable.

“Of course there’s going be redundancies over the next few months and years, but not mass redundancies. I don’t know where I’d take mass redundancies out. Of course I don’t want to lose people, but I think there will be people that just say: ‘This isn’t for me anymore.’”

‘The buck stops here’ for saving local titles

For Willis, protecting Archant’s titles, which she sees as having a wider significance in sustaining the future of local news, is paramount and here her passion is clear. “I don’t want to be the CEO that shuts titles. That would be very upsetting to me,” she says.

“I’m going to make some tough decisions, I have to make those tough decisions, but I can tell you every decision I make will be about protecting local journalism and making sure that… when I’m older, I’m not talking to some youngster who’s asking me: “What’s a regional newspaper?’

“It’s us, it’s our generation – we have to get this right,” she says.

“This isn’t just about Archant… there is no one coming up behind us to solve these problems. If this team doesn’t get this right, some of our titles – and not just ours – that have been around for over a century, that we have a responsibility for, aren’t going to be here.

“We can’t turn around and say: ‘It wasn’t my fault, it was the guy before me.’ The buck stops here, now.”

I put it to Willis that an apparent trend across the local news industry for some years has been that of steadily cutting costs to keep ahead of losses. “I think that’s what’s been happening, don’t you?” she replies.

“We’ve been grappling with it for 20 years and yet we keep doing the same thing. Everything we’re doing is… so focused on cost and we wonder why revenue goes down. Revenue will never follow cost cuts. Profit will, but not revenue.

“Whereas actually if we focus on quality, scale will follow quality… So we’ve got a significant culture shift to go in terms of winning back trust and building people’s confidence.”

Part of this culture shift involves “going back to basics” and better understanding readers, says Willis. That includes finding out why people in a community “aren’t buying us anymore”, with research into readership and distribution being undertaken at the publisher.

In its first-quarter 2021 results, Archant more than broke even, I’m told, despite the ongoing global health crisis. “That’s a really healthy place for us to be,” says Willis. “If you think of how dramatically our commercial market shrunk, we were probably trading with, at any given time, around 40% less customers than we were in 2019.”

Diversifying revenue streams will be a focus for the new CEO, who says Covid has given Archant “permission to think differently”. Already it has moved into marketing services for ad clients, but diversifying reader revenues presents a new challenge. “What does that look like?” Willis asks.

She does not believe in giving away content for free online, which Archant has done so far, but says there is flexibility now to decide how best to apply this change. She gives the examples of a data paywall, such as asking readers to register with an email, or a premium content model.

“Now we’re really able to… bring our readers into that conversation about what they would be prepared paid for,” says Willis. She also plans to create an e-commerce team to bring in new revenue for the group.

[Read more: How e-commerce is providing a new revenue source for specialist magazines]

‘We’re not operating with a ‘For Sale’ sign on us’

As for print, while circulation will pick up again she does not anticipate retail revenues returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“I don’t think we’ll get those back and I don’t think we should plan on getting those back. I think we should understand what those readers need now and look at distributing our news in a different way,” she says.

“No one is going to be sitting there and saying to me as CEO, why on earth haven’t you increased our circulation revenues by X number of money? I think that pressure’s passed. But I should be challenged on: how many readers have we got? And are those readers happy? And how are we servicing those readers? That’s what matters.”

Willis is clear that like most private equity firms that pick up struggling news publishers, new owners Rcaptial will sell the publisher “at some point”. “I know that, they’re not our forever home,” she says.

“Our responsibility is to make sure we put ourselves in the best possible position so that we get the right forever home.

“We’re not ready to sell yet, we’ve got too much going for us at the moment in terms of too much opportunity to go for. Why would you do that? It’s kind of like selling a car half done up, you wouldn’t do that. So we’re not operating with a ‘For Sale’ sign on us.”

Archant’s CEO on public funding and the BBC

Willis says she is open to new models of funding journalism. “Historically, business models have been built on supporting these massive businesses, I think there needs to be some space to look at, actually, what does the business model look like in supporting smaller papers,” she says.

She believes too that public funding should play a role in paying for local journalism and supports certain types of content being “very carefully public-funded”. “I think there are parts of what we do in the regional press that is a public service and it needs to be recognised as a public service.”

Willis says the financial reality of making news pay means “there will always be a level of compromise”, that is “until we’re able to say this type of reporting, this is protected; this is truly unbiased. No arguments between commercial and editorial in the newsroom. I think public funding is the only way that that will truly be able to happen.”

As for the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service, which pays the salaries of full-time journalists to cover local council meetings, Willis says the scheme, which Archant makes use of, is “patronising”.

“It’s almost like we’re children not trusted to have our own pocket money,” she says, and would rather it was directly funded through local publishers. “Allow us to do what we need to do,” she says.

“Paying for journalists is great, but what about the three or four people we need to support that role? What happens there?” Her message for the BBC? “We do local – and we do it better – so let us do it.”

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