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September 30, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:38am

How 160-year-old regional newspaper returned to profit six months after closure threat

By Charlotte Tobitt

A 160-year-old local newspaper is back in profit six months after falling into financial trouble and almost being forced to close.

Some 22 jobs were saved when the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald was bought out of administration in February by local businessman Andy Barr who said he wanted to preserve the title’s history and ties to the Cumbrian community.

Four months later Barr went on to buy a second title, the Keswick Reminder, which had been owned by the same family for 124 years, to similarly save it for the future.

Barr appointed former Bloomberg head of digital and newsgathering, and BBC and Sky journalist John Holliday as managing director of both papers and revealed this week the Herald has returned to profit despite Covid-19.

Holliday (pictured) said the turnaround came after he challenged staff to try new things and move away from their previous way of thinking that “we always do it this way”.

New hires have come since the buyout, including a head of digital content, reporter, advertising director and two business development managers, while plans are afoot for a new website.

Holliday also said a focus on hyperlocal news and “local names, local faces and local places”, along with investing in staff talent, had made a demonstrable impact.

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“Readers want to believe in their community, read quality parish pump content,” he said. “I believe that we could go back to a time where every town has its own local newspaper.

“My business philosophy is simple really: hire the best quality talent you can. That helps you make the best products. In turn you’ll increase sales and increase profits. It’s a virtuous circle. We have done that and there’s more to come.”

Cumberland and Westmorland Herald front page dated 26 September 2020

Holliday put up the weekly cover price by 50% from £1 to £1.50 and said that despite forecasting a worst case scenario of losing 8-12% of paying readers, there was a drop of just 2%.

Despite suffering the same difficulties through the worst of the Covid-19 lockdown as many other regional newspapers across the UK, the title has already seen a return to pre-Covid advertising levels.

Holliday is now predicting a growth in sales year-on-year. The paper just published a 40-page edition, which he said was its biggest in more than a decade.

“It’s doing really well. It’s back making a profit,” he said.

“The team has worked hard, adapted and innovated… Our strategy is built around growth. Anyone can cut costs, but I believe the way you grow a business is through focus, differentiation and cost leadership.”

Holliday also said he has a “deep faith” that readers are happy to pay for high quality content as they increasingly realise if they want to “understand the world, your locality, great drama and great sport… there is a cost to it”.

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