There's life in the regional press yet

With revenues and profits up in the first half of 2007, Archant is firmly of the view that the obituaries for regional media should be spiked. Those who were writing of its long and agonising death need to reflect on reality rather than prejudice.

As hard to swallow as it may be, perhaps it is time to send the ‘glad to hear you’re getting better’message.

Archant’s revenue increase of 2.75 per cent (adjusting for acquisitions and disposals) is a strong hint that our illness wasn’t as life-threatening as some have suggested. Profits are moving ahead too with total operating profit (that is, without the impact of corporate activity) increasing by 8.6 per cent.

And it isn’t just Archant demonstrating that the undertaker knocking at the door of the industry, wearing a T-shirt, is somewhat premature. Across the sector the gloom is thinning and CEOs can afford the hint of a smile.

Of course, the first day without a sneeze doesn’t mean that you are free from ‘man flu’ forever. The challenge of running a regional media business is tougher than it has been, and it will no doubt get tougher still.

Having struggled through the coughs and sneezes we have had to become stronger as an industry. We have had to adapt to survive. It helps that the structuralists who claimed that the structure of advertising was changing so much, and so rapidly, that local newspapers would fade away without trace, got it wrong.

The balance between structure and cyclicality in the recent woes has had a larger element of cycle to it than the doom-mongers had thought. The structural element is certainly a factor, and this has driven the changes we have made.

Can we expect to turn the tide of daily evening circulation decline? Relying solely on huge paid-for circulation increases as a strategy is unlikely to have you named in the next list of the 10 most influential people in media. What is possible, though, is increasing the size of the audience for the brand, and for the advertisers that chose to use the brand to connect with their audience.

There are many ways of doing that. Online is one, and Archant – in common with other regional media players – is seeing quite dramatic web audience growth: more than 50 per cent year-on-year across the business. Part-free is another approach being used in the industry.

Ultimately, our job is to create audiences and then to give advertisers the opportunity to connect with those audiences. If you look at paid circulation alone you miss the real story. We are growing audiences through free copies and websites.

If you want to feel better about the industry, just take a look at the audience to ITV1 over the past 10 years. Compared with the audiences to our brands the graph looks pitiful.

We are continuing to invest in our brands, moving resources into, and investing in, areas that can contribute to audience growth, such as the websites that have healthy potential.

Our online plans will make all our brands more accessible to the communities they serve. Our future websites will enable us to tell local stories better than anyone. With the story as the focus we can bring together all the assets required to communicate the essential elements of the story to the audience and engage in a conversation with the community.

This isn’t just a smart idea or the latest fad. It is about taking our existing brands, which have a solid reputation in the communities they serve, and building them further.

It works. It has contributed to stabilising and expanding our business to date, and it will continue to do so.

Existing brand development is being matched by the creation of new brands, new products and new ways to talk to local audiences. Archant identified a niche audience that wanted the best local services. This audience wanted to read about the finer things in life in their communities. A newspaper could provide this, but not as well as a dedicated glossy publication: well-written, with excellent photography, and printed on high-quality paper.

Archant Life, the business we set up to develop that opportunity, is now one of the fastest growing parts of our operation in both revenue and profit. Overall, our magazine activities, which are highly focused on clearly identified communities, represent nearly a third of our revenue. That is a sign of real adaptation.

One of the greatest contributors to Archant’s success is that we have learned that being an organisation that creates a handful of titles and offers them from a lofty position is a short-term strategy.

Being an organisation that listens to the communities it serves, understands the needs of that community at an individual and advertiser level, and strives to meet those needs across a range of brands and communication channels, is the only way to protect our future.

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