Could the coronavirus pandemic prove to be the salvation of regional and local newspapers?
That may seem mad, given everything that has occurred previously. Long established titles have simply been shut. For those that remain, at times, it’s felt like we’ve been witnessing a property play masquerading as newspaper publishing. Every newspaper occupied plum, town central premises. One by one, they’ve been boarded up and redeveloped. Often, their staff have been made redundant or relocated to the distant news “hub”.
This hollowing out can lead to papers put together by reporters unfamiliar with the geographical patch they purport to serve, mistakes and an absence of exclusive journalism. The overall picture is profoundly depressing.
Only 18 months ago, Rcapital took over Archant, owner of the Eastern Daily Press, the East Anglia Daily Times, Norwich Evening News, Ipswich Star and other news titles, as well as an array of county “Life” magazines.
Archant was on its last legs when Rcapital swept in. The Norwich-based publisher was facing insolvency. That did not sway the new private equity owners who remained optimistic. Chris Campbell, partner at Rcapital, said: “We are incredibly pleased to have worked alongside Archant’s management team and KPMG to put forward a plan that will restructure finances and inject fresh capital into one of Britain’s oldest local newspaper brands. We are hopeful, that with the support of its creditors, Archant will emerge from this challenging period as a stronger business that continues to provide a vital service to its clients and readership.”
At the end of last year, Rcapital announced it was shutting two-thirds of Archant’s offices. Last month, it sold several Archant specialist titles to Kelsey. Three of its titles in south-west England have also been offloaded to former Archant executive Simon Bax’s new company.
Rcapital disposed of Archant’s only national newspaper, The New European, to a group including its former editor Matt Kelly and ex-BBC boss Mark Thompson. And earlier this month, Archant asked subscribers to its print Life magazines to stop receiving the physical product and try out a “greener” digital subscription.
Now comes Rcapital’s complete departure, having sold Archant to Newsquest. It looks bad. After all, if private equity can’t make it work, who can?
Inevitably, speculation is rife that the Newsquest takeover heralds another round of job losses, more salami-slicing, among Archant’s remaining 760-strong workforce. There will be some cuts, there’s bound to be – in any such union there is duplication, particularly on the administration, management side. But there is ground for hope.
When Rcapital closed those Archant’s offices, it cited the low level of attendance by staff during the pandemic and a resulting, declared preference for work from home. There’s the clue: can WFH be the saviour of our beleaguered regional and local press?
Here’s the editorial strategy: scrap those loathed editorial hubs and encourage reporters, if they need encouragement at all, to WFH, and “get local”. Where the national news media is concerned, I’m of the view that WFH is a bad idea, that nothing beats the energy, dynamism and yes, the smell, of the busy newsroom. Reporters feed off each other, they can share ideas and leads, they love that buzz of working together.
The same is true of regional and local newspapers. They’re no different – the process of gathering and producing news stories is just the same. But I also must face reality, which is that the days of large newsrooms for that section of the media have surely gone – such has been the level of decline. They’re no longer financially justifiable.
The hub offered a solution but all it did was add to the loss of editorial quality. WFH, and its wide acceptance post-Covid-19, is a more attractive proposition, a godsend for the sector. Journalists can be based in the area they’re meant to be covering, they will develop contacts and networks, they can gain intimate knowledge. They will know what they’re writing about and it will show in their reports. Their copy can be subbed by colleagues, also WFH. Readers will see and appreciate the difference and carry on reading and recommending (the best advocate is the reader telling someone what they’ve read and how good it was).
Meanwhile, those remaining offices can be sold and the fixed overheads stripped right down. The newspaper should take smaller space and maintain a physical presence for symbolism, to be used mostly by members of the public dropping by and for meetings, but that is all.
It’s an editorial model that works. It’s not perfect, there are niggles – it can be lonely and demotivating WFH. Editors need to get around their reporters; they must meet them regularly; they should talk to them constantly. But, given the alternative, of total disappearance or the use of news hubs that only delayed the inevitable, this is a lot more preferable.
On the commercial side, the advertising sales hub makes sense, perhaps with a local ad booker. Centralisation and scale matter on the advertising side, where they can make a positive difference; not in editorial, where they’re counterproductive.
Two is buying four, in the hierarchy of regional press publishers. Reach is number one, followed by Newsquest, then JPI and Archant. I could see how ending print offered a saving, but I could not see my way through editorial. The pandemic has supplied the answer.
Far from decrying Newsquest acquiring Archant as borne out of desperation, nothing to get excited about, it’s a smart deal. Archant was already moving ahead in digital. That should now accelerate.
This is an excellent moment to be buying regional and local newspapers. That’s a phrase two years ago I could never envisage writing. But then we didn’t have WFH either.
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