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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

Newsquest and Reach bosses respond to questions over local news quality

Reach's David Higgerson, Newsquest's Henry Faure Walker and Mill Media's Joshi Herrmann on the state of the market.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Bosses at Reach and Newsquest have responded to a claim from the founder of the Manchester Mill newsletter start-up that quality “obviously hasn’t” been maintained in UK local media.

However Reach chief digital publisher David Higgerson and Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker left Lords Communications and Digital Committee chair Baroness Tina Stowell “a bit baffled by the picture that you’re painting about the success of your businesses, when the challenge seems to be around the quality of content”.

Joshi Herrmann, who founded the Manchester Mill on newsletter platform Substack in 2020 and has since expanded into Liverpool, Sheffield and Birmingham, told the committee, which is examining the future of news, on Tuesday: “I think the larger question of how has quality been maintained in local media generally is that it obviously hasn’t.

“In the local town near where my mum lives in Sussex, there used to be two local newspapers, both of which had an office on the high street… Now, there is one newspaper and it doesn’t have any local coverage to speak of. There might be one story about the local town. The rest of it will be aggregated from other local communities where the same large news organisation owns other titles.

“It is effectively a zombie newspaper. It says it is about one town, but in fact it is just got content and stories from all over the country and from all over the county. So quality hasn’t been maintained. If you go on the websites of local newspapers, you will find all sorts of stories that are not journalism and they’re not local, and you’ll find so many ads covering that content that it’s very difficult to read.”

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Reach: ‘We do a lot of journalism nobody else does’

Reach content chief Higgerson told the committee he has worked in local journalism for 25 years and “there has been one constant in the fact that there has always been a sizeable proportion of the public who have been ready to dismiss what we do”.

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“But I would point out that we do an awful lot of journalism which, frankly, nobody else does.”

Citing three examples in markets that have been entered by Mill Media, Higgerson continued: “If you look, for example, in Manchester at the success of the MEN uncovering the scandal of Awaab Ishak’s housing in Rochdale, that story only gained the traction that it did because of weeks of spadework by the Manchester Evening News and the fact the initial story was read by 150,000 people.

“You look in Liverpool, the tireless work that [political editor] Liam Thorp did to uncover the councillors who were taking an interesting approach to their parking tickets… or indeed the fact that Birmingham Live, previously, Birmingham Mail, continues to campaign for the victims of Birmingham pub bombings. All of that is made possible by doing a very broad mix of content.

“It’s very easy to pick sort of slivers of content on websites and say that’s not local news, or that’s not quality journalism, but pick up any local newspaper from the 80s or the 90s and you’ll see the same broad mix of content in those metro dailies, as you see on our websites today.”

Newsquest CEO: ‘I’m optimistic about the next five years’

Newsquest‘s Faure Walker said he was “more optimistic about the next five years than the previous ten or 15. I think we’ll see a bit more stability, although I think it will continue to be challenging”.

Citing the loss of classified advertising and a hefty chunk of display advertising to Google and Facebook, the CEO said: “But you can’t lose that revenue twice… we’re now down to a more stable core of advertising.” Half of Newsquest’s advertising revenue now comes from digital and it also has a growing digital subscriptions business.

Faure Walker said Newsquest’s revenues were up 3% in 2022, down 3% last year and “pretty flat” so far in 2024 saying that is stable over the past two and a bit years.

“I am confident and I’ve worked in the industry for a long time. I’m more confident than I ever have been in the last 22 years about the prospects for publishers, whether that’s Joshi’s business, or my business or another start-up business in large population markets,” he said.

Faure Walker also noted that although Newsquest has had to “lay off a significant amount of staff, particularly in editorial over the past ten years” they have not made “any meaningful editorial reductions over the last three years”.

[Read more: Newsquest CEO Henry Faure Walker on bucking the trend of regional press decline]

However, he acknowledged: “To be clear I don’t think we’re saying that it’s all roses. I think it’s still challenging, but I think we’re saying there’s more stability than perhaps the public narrative. I think the industry does a poor job of communicating. So I think there are a lot of detractors. It’s easy to throw stones at the industry. But there is a lot of good work going on.”

He cited, for example, Newsquest’s growing loyal audience – now its key metric over page views.

“So the public, the consumers of local news, yes, they may be irritated from time to time with the advertising, they might not like always what we do, but they are coming increasingly back to our sites and the audiences are very, very phenomenal.”

For example, in York about 75% of the adult population visits the York Press website each month, he said, and about 20% of the population comes back more than 15 times a month.

But it will be “more challenging going forward in smaller and medium-sized markets” than larger cities, Faure Walker added. “So I’m more relaxed about the outlook for larger cities and journalism there given the scale of markets.”

He also said: “…in terms of maintaining the quality, I would say that we are doing so.”

‘No hostility’ between MEN and Manchester Mill bosses

Despite his criticism, Herrmann said he had “no hostility” towards his fellow panellists.

Told by a peer on the committee that he “looked extremely annoyed” by answers given by his “rivals” Higgerson and Faure Walker, Herrmann said: “I wasn’t annoyed and we’re not rivals. We’re all trying to create good quality local journalism in an environment that’s very difficult. There’s no hostility whatsoever.

“I think that an important aspect of this is reality though – being honest about the situation that we’re in… there’s no point pretending that it’s in good shape because it’s in terrible shape. It’s in the worst shape it’s ever been since the advent of newspapers.

“So I don’t think there’s any hostility here. I think there’s a difference in how we’re portraying what’s going on.”

Quoting Press Gazette research he said: “I think 6,000 fewer local journalists down from 9,000 in 2007 is a remarkable drop off in capacity. And I think it should signal alarm bells definitely across Westminster that we have got this incredibly important industry that is dying and I’m sceptical about any attempt to pretend that’s not happening because we can see this happening.”

[Read more: Colossal decline of UK regional media since 2007 revealed]

Similarly, Higgerson said: “When he [Herrmann] first launched the Manchester Mill the journalists at the Manchester Evening News were pleased to see more journalism in Manchester. I don’t think either myself or Henry have set out to say everything’s rosy nor do I shirk away from the fact that we have had to reduce the size of our newsrooms, exit some markets over recent years.

“Our starting point is the same as anybody else on the panel which is we want to employ as many local journalists as possible and that’s why as we came out of the pandemic, we thought things would be better than they would be which is why we hired 200 more and we have expanded multiple times over the last decade into into new areas.”

In July 2021 Reach said it employed more journalists than it did pre-Covid in 2019 and that by the end of the year it would employ more than at any point in the previous decade. But since then it has had to make hundreds of job cuts, with more than 700 roles cut last year.

Both Higgerson and Faure Walker rejected a peer’s suggestion that their companies were “the lame ducks of the communications revolution”.

Higgerson said: “I think we’d be a lame duck if people weren’t reading what we were writing and we’re read by record numbers of people now… I definitely wouldn’t say that we’re, a lame duck and definitely wouldn’t say that we ignore what’s happened over the last 20 years.

“I think probably it’s the fact that we look at what happened over the last 20 years so much that makes us so determined to keep changing so that we can get to a place where we are hiring more journalists to have more people on the ground.”

Local news bosses address ‘ad clutter’

Higgerson and Faure Walker also addressed the “ad clutter” that can lead to complaints of poor usability and readability on the major regional news websites.

Higgerson said this issue was why Reach has begun offering paid-for ad-free experiences at some of its titles including the apps for the Manchester Evening News and the Liverpool Echo.

He said Reach hears complaints about usability “regularly” but “those are the ads that fund the journalism” and “we think it’s very important that the news is, free, or more important, freely available”.

In a lot of the towns and cities served by Reach, he said, “People are choosing between whether they can afford to heat their homes or eat the food. The idea of debating whether they pay for a news subscription is largely academic to them”.

And Faure Walker said: “We’ve obviously got to monetise the content so we have to serve advertising. There is a lot of discussion going certainly in my business at how we can improve user experience. We’ve moved quite significantly to digital subscriptions to do that.

“And similar to David, and I think other publishers are following suit, the choice I think will increasingly become you can read our content for free, but you have to put up with quite a lot of advertising clutter, but we’ve got to pay our journalists. But if you would like an ad-light or an ad-free environment, then you need to take a digital subscription for £5 a month.

“So I think the industry is moving in that direction but it certainly hasn’t got it right in terms of user experience as we stand today.”

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