No one wants a visit from management consultants

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year makes.

last year’s Press Gazette Regional Awards in Manchester, Northcliffe
editors and nominated staff were still basking in the reputation of
being the group most people wanted to work for.

editors took tables without having to get it triple-signed, they could
arrive in style (jet, canal boat, etc) and generally treat it as a
jolly reward for staff.

With a long-standing reputation as a
company that was not obsessed with returnon- sale figures,
institutional shareholders or cost cutting, everything in the garden
looked rosy.

When you add into the mix the aboveaverage salaries
paid to senior staff, generous bonus potential and the fact the editors
did not report to the centre MDs, it was envy all round. So the
shockwaves in the regional press in the past few weeks should not be

To recap: three long-standing editors (Mike Lowe
in Bristol, Dave Gledhill in Bath and Barrie Williams in the South
West) have left, or are leaving, the company. Northcliffe has announced
it wants to save about £20m a year across the company – and recognises
jobs will go.

Although it expects to achieve this mainly through
natural wastage, it won’t have escaped the editors that many of them
will be working with a smaller headcount than they currently enjoy.

And it won’t have escaped the journalists that with fewer of them, they may have to work harder to produce what they do now.

fact that Northcliffe has mentioned it will be employing Effective
Consulting to look at the current set-up has not helped put editors’
minds at rest. This company has spent much time at Trinity Mirror
regionals, and it would be safe to say it is not on many editors’
Christmas card lists.

Certainly horror stories were being shared
at a great rate last week in the grandeur of the London Hilton Hotel,
where rival editors were first able to get together at the awards to
discuss the ramifications of the announcement.

And this was the
event where Western Morning News editor Barrie Williams, taking early
retirement “because of a major change of policy and structure within
Northcliffe Newspapers”, picked up three of the 21 awards – including
the prestigious Daily/Sunday Newspaper of the Year.

In fact
Northcliffe had a great awards, winning eight in total. It convincingly
outperformed the rest of the industry, with the small family-owned CN
Group punching above its weight by picking up four and the largest
group in the country, Trinity Mirror, gaining three.

second largest group, Newsquest, picked up just one – although it was a
biggie for Evening Newspaper of the Year (well-deserved for the Glasgow
Evening Times). There was also just one for the fourth biggest group,
Johnston, with the Lancashire Evening Post winning Young Reporter of
the Year.

Of course, awards are not everything. But Northcliffe
has consistently performed at them (winning six last year) and its
editors will understandably be concerned about the recent announcements
and how they affect their ability to go the extra mile.

But the bosses can point to circulation as an even more important barometer of success.

It is true that Northcliffe is the best editorially resourced big regional group.

while accountants in the past may have looked on enviously at Trinity
Mirror and Johnston’s exceptional margins, they will have been
satisfied with their lot as long as the company was outperforming
rivals on circulation.

It’s a simple equation – employed
successfully by their sister national paper the Daily Mail – and it’s
fair to say that Northcliffe has not been doing that.

While no
papers are in serious trouble, does their circulation performance
justify having 30 to 40 extra journalists on some titles?

In the past, editors have argued successfully that it does. Those days seem over.

TO THE awards, which may have been dominated by Northcliffe gossip, but
there was also great anticipation about what new Press Gazette boss
Piers Morgan might say to charm or choke the regional press.

alienated a fair few readers with his views on a successful career
path, it was timely that he would be facing the regions so soon into
his tenure.

His charm offensive worked to the degree that he was not booed or punched – and his speech got plenty of laughs.

fact at one point it looked like he was even being approached by young
hacks eager to get his autograph (although he may just have been giving
them directions on how to find all the national newspaper groups while
they were in town).

But the debate on whether the regional press
is just the stepping stone for the nationals is an interesting one, and
worth exploring with the personalities taken out of it.

No one in the regional press can deny that young staff, in particular, often hanker for a wider stage.

wages at basic reporter level on the nationals are nothing like what
they were, and the capital is an expensive place to live, it’s still
worth it for some who want to get to the top of the nationals.

editors understand that and wish people well – especially if they have
given them a couple of great years (on not much money).

actually the vast majority of staff remain in the regions (even if that
was not their original game plan), enticed by quality of life and a
chance to make a difference in a place where they and their families

And just a word of warning to any of last week’s winners
who may now be approached by the nationals – as awards have long been a
recruitment source for the London guys.

Last year’s Columnist of
the Year was the brilliant Anila Baig from the Yorkshire Post who,
against her parents’ wishes, first cut her teeth in Bradford.

Fast forward 12 months and she is writing the what to watch TV column for The Sun.

research will bear out that The Sun’s TV pages will be some of the most
popular in the paper – and her 200 words a day will be extremely well

It may be a stepping stone to something better, but for
those familiar with her regional columns and take on life, we can’t
help thinking “what a waste”.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk

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