Mirror, Express and Star publisher Reach has said it will launch at least seven new regional news websites next year and recruit 46 journalists in a “significant expansion” of its digital network.
The publisher will launch websites under its “Live” branding covering Sunderland, County Durham, Sheffield, North Yorkshire, Bradford, Newport and Bolton.
Alongside its existing Leeds Live website, Reach said the new sites will mean it will have a dedicated local presence across the whole of Yorkshire and represent a “major new investment”.
The new hires will take up permanent roles, the publisher has said.
The move will see Reach directly challenge rival publishers such as JPI Media (formerly Johnston Press) which owns the Yorkshire Post, Yorkshire Evening Post, Sheffield Star and Sunderland Echo, and Newsquest, which owns the Northern Echo, Durham Advertiser and Bolton News.
The announcement comes as Reach is understood to be the frontrunner in negotiations to buy JPI Media’s 200 regional titles, reportedly outbidding Newsquest’s tabled £50m offer.
Reach’s first “Live” website was launched in 2015 with Belfast Live, a title which Reach said has grown to over 11m monthly page views despite it having no previous foothold in the region.
The Live model splits the digital news operation from the print operation in regions where the publisher already has a print presence, such as in Birmingham where the Post team and Live team are separate.
Reach chief executive Jim Mullen said: “We have already seen rapid growth across the entire Live network this year, including in cases where we’ve established completely new brands and grown new audiences.
“Our digital regional proposition presents a major opportunity to expand our readership even further with the Live brand. Now is the time to expand this proven model on an even bigger scale and bring our journalism to even more communities across the country.”
Group editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley added: “We know that readers today trust our regional journalism more than ever.
“We are also confident that we know better than the rest how to grow an engaged online audience – so it is really exciting to be able to put our money where our mouth is and make this kind of investment.
“What better way could there be to demonstrate our confidence in the future of local news?”
Reach said that as part of the investment some existing Live news websites will “see editorial expansion”, with teams at Edinburgh Live and Glasgow Live set to boost their numbers.
Under the expansion, Neil Hodgkinson has been named editor-in-chief of Yorkshire and Humber, and Helen Dalby has taken the role of editor-in-chief for the North East.
Reach said Dalby is its first regional editor-in-chief to “rise through the ranks as a digital journalist”.
The new sites are expected to go live in 2020, with the first launches scheduled as early as February.