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November 22, 2012

Sale of Northcliffe was ‘disappointing, if not inevitable’, says former editor

Marc Astley worked at Northcliffe for more than 20 years and is the former editor of the Exeter Express & Echo. Earlier this year he launched the rival website Exteter Daily.

It was disappointing, if not inevitable, that the £50m sale of the newspaper group which owns Exeter’s Express & Echo and the Western Morning News in Plymouth was announced yesterday.

The writing was on the wall seven years ago when I took on my first editorship, after serving 20-odd years as a journalist.

I had worked for Northcliffe Media Ltd (an arm of the Daily Mail, which ran dozens of regional newspapers across the UK) since the late 80s and had pitched up in newsrooms as far afield as Hull, Nottingham and Leicester.

However, since the day I started as a junior reporter, newspaper sales were only going in one direction – the wrong direction – and the internet had begun to attract the very customers who had been the lifeblood of print titles for time immemorial.

As a result, my first big role coincided with Northcliffe being put up for sale in 2006 for an eye-watering £1.3bn. A sale that did not happen.

What followed though were a series of cuts, hundreds of job losses and yet more customers deciding that online was where it was at.

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Profits continued to decline and talks of sales and mergers would rear their ugly heads on a regular basis.

My paper turned weekly in 2011, a clear signal that all was not well in the local newspaper world, along with three other Northcliffe titles.

I quit at the end of December after deciding to pursue a number of business opportunities.

Although I now know I made the right decision it was a wrench to leave a job I had loved for more almost a quarter of a century.

Some days I still miss it, especially the people, but from the outside looking in it seems an almost impossible business.

The costs are high and difficult to control and the sales patterns are wildly unpredictable.

Not only that, the sort of information that once only newspapers could deliver (literally) to large audiences, can now be published by anyone using a mobile phone and a Twitter account.

The rules of the game have changed… forever.

I now part-own an online news site called The Exeter Daily.

As I write, Devon is mopping up after torrential overnight rain with many roads closed and others barely passable.

We covered the day’s events publishing dozens of pictures and hundreds of words with one editor and a bunch of keen amateur contributors.

The Echo went to press at lunchtime (unless they managed to get a late print slot) and won’t be on the stands until Thursday morning, by which time the story will be dead.

This is the conundrum that traditional publishers have to wrestle with.

How do you produce relevant and compelling content in the 24/7, social media society we now live in?

The simple answer is that you can’t.

I do hope the new owners manage to turn things around and that the local newspapers now in their charge have a healthy and prosperous future.

I also dearly wish that the brilliant and dedicated reporters who work on newspapers, like the Express & Echo and the Western Morning News, keep their jobs. They, more than anyone else in this business, deserve to as they have been through a lot. I know, I went through it with them.

But somehow I suspect that in the not too distant future, this deal will create the type of headlines that they really won’t want to read…

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