'Newspaper man' David Montgomery's local vision for JPI welcomed by staff - but it will need investment

JPI Media insiders have welcomed David Montgomery’s plan to give decision-making powers back to local newsrooms.

And former editors at Montgomery’s last local news venture in the UK, Local World, have told Press Gazette that he is a newspaper man “at heart”.

Montgomery (pictured) told staff at Scotsman and Yorkshire Post owner JPI, which he bought on 31 December through his investment vehicle National World, that he is rejecting clickbait and “irrelevant” stories in favour of a more localised news offering.

His manifesto appears to have been well received among JPI staff but many question whether this can be achieved without investment to get more boots on the ground.

There have been waves of voluntary redundancies across JPI in recent months and a number of editorial staff at the UK’s third largest local newspaper publisher are still off under the Government Covid-19 furlough scheme.

One JPI staffer told Press Gazette the majority of the news for one large town (formerly served by its own dedicated editor and newsroom) is now written by a single reporter based some 20 miles away who gathers most of their leads from social media.

The current JPI system sees journalists split into hard news reporters, community news reporters and copy desk editors. The copy desk farms out story leads and writers file for multiple titles.

The staffer said that under the pooled system there is very little reporting from journalists rooted in their communities and little incentive to come up with exclusives. Instead reporters are expected to cover whatever is allocated to them by the copydesk and fill in gaps filing for titles across a large geographical area often far from their home patch, the source said.

One staffer, who asked not to be named, said: “Patch reporting by journalists covering their own communities is by far the most effective system.”

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Montgomery formed National World in 2012 to buy and merge Iliffe News and Media and Northcliffe and ran the company until selling it to Trinity Mirror (now Reach) in 2015, more than doubling its valuation in that period from £100m to £220m.

Neil White, who was editor of the Derby Telegraph between 2012 and 2016 and now runs a PR company on his old patch, told Press Gazette Montgomery had clearly changed his tune from that era when management in London and Milton Keynes had daily oversight of local titles.

“The reality is there has been a growing tendency in the regional press to have it led by the centre over the past decade,” he said.

“It’s always been my fervent belief as a newspaper editor that the people in the regions know the regional scene better than those elsewhere. Now, if he is going to work with those in the regions and accept that they know their local agenda and he is going to offer the support of centre to enable them to see it through then I think it’s a positive move, and certainly the industry needs it. There’s no doubt about that. It needs reinvigoration.”

White added: “I think society is a better place with a strong regional press for all sorts of reasons and if David Montgomery can enable that to happen then that’s great.”

A true newspaper man

White also praised Montgomery as a “very hands on” leader who was extremely interested in the news agenda and both demanding and ready with praise for a job well done.

Montgomery had his own vision for how the newspapers should be put together but never told editors what to write, White added.

“I always felt like he was a newspaper media man at heart and wanted us to do well with better resource than certainly we ended up with under Trinity Mirror, that’s for sure.”

[Read more: David Montgomery outlines plan to ‘decentralise’ JPI Media and shun ‘irrelevant or clickbait stories’]

White added that he believed Montgomery was “very upset” when he sold Local World, a decision ultimately made by its shareholders.

Another ex-Local World employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told Press Gazette some colleagues distrusted Montgomery because they felt he was only there for a “quick buck” before selling.

But they said they personally they had no issues with him: “I thought David Montgomery was very knowledgeable about the business. I thought he talked a lot of sense and I respected him.”

They added that there were lots of positives about his time leading Local World but that some of the innovation fell flat: “I think the whole idea and vision was very good but I think the actual execution ended up being quite poor in many respects.”

The source went on to praise Montgomery for learning similar lessons to Edward Iliffe, who is currently seeking to re-engage readers with a “parochial” touch.

[Read more: Regional press boss Edward Iliffe explains why he’s been buying up local newspaper titles (rather than selling out)]

“I think he [Montgomery] has got the right idea, he’s putting the power back into the hands of local editors,” they said. “He’s probably seen what’s happened with Iliffe News and Media since they started buying up local titles. They’ve invested in the local market and it seems to be doing really well.

“It’s a good operation… he [Edward Iliffe] is a good guy. I think he likes the idea of being a newspaper owner first and foremost and having a title in a prestigious place like Cambridge but he clearly gets local media and he clearly sees the importance of it and I think David Montgomery’s the same.

“He understands it, he knows that there’s a market there for high-quality local journalism.”

Analysis: ‘Less fat to trim’ than ten years ago

A report from industry analysts Enders Analysis published on Wednesday dubbed Montgomery’s planned decentralisation as “both radical, and also a reflection of the industry cycle”.

“Many large local publishers seek to centralise editorial, advertising and back office operations, in pursuit of scale efficiencies, often closing some regional hubs in the process,” it said.

“It is likely that repeating the cost-cutting exercise Montgomery performed with Local World will be difficult, if not impossible.

“After a decade of restructuring there is far less fat to trim, as fixed costs like overheads, pre-press and printing which are outside of publishers’ ability to control constitute a far greater proportion of most publishers’ cost-base.

“However, as a former editor, Montgomery has a visceral sense of how to attract and engage audiences, and so create value from online by developing what the industry carefully nurtured for decades before online advertising came along: a reader economy.”

Enders predicted that if National World is successful it will likely want to make further acquisitions, either in new technology solutions or in further traditional media assets “which can add value and reinforce the new strategy”.

Picture: Reuters/Morten Holm/ Scanpix

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