Media: The global village still needs its parish pump

Figures show local newspapers now lead the way in increased sales, and national editors are taking note.
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The Independent Culture
WHILE IT may be fashionable to speak of living in a global village, it seems that what people want most as we approach the millennium is news of what is happening on their doorstep.

Latest ABC results for weekly local newspapers suggest that a vigorous back-to-basics philosophy is paying dividends for these titles, with those concentrating most on parochial coverage recording remarkable sales increases.

And Independent Television Commission research shows that while, between 1991 and 1993, national news was the preferred programming, with local and regional news coming second, between 1995 and 1997, the positions reversed.

Mirror editor Piers Morgan plans to be the first national newspaper editor to take such findings seriously, with a regional offensive designed to capitalise on the public's apparent appetite for all things local.

Morgan won't go into detail about his planned "Project X", but says it is intended to repeat the sales successes notched up by The Mirror in Scotland and Ireland - both regions where he has set up Mirror "fiefdoms", each with their own reporting team under a separate editor.

In Scotland, Mirror sales went from 20,000 to nearly 100,000 when the regional strategy was combined with price-cutting. Says Morgan: "We feel there's a lot of scope if you concentrate on particular areas where there is a real sense of community, rather than give them a load of stuff in the main edition, which is perhaps irrelevant."

It is an offensive that, Morgan agrees, draws strongly on the roots strategy of local newspapers. After years of trying to stall sales losses by mimicking Fleet Street papers, many are now reverting to type - with parish-pump news proving a winning formula with readers.

As recently released July to December 1998 figures show, nearly 70 per cent of the UK's 379 weekly paid-for newspapers increased their sales year-on-year, with nine recording double-figure percentage rises.

Graham Smith, the editor of the East Kent Mercury, which covers Deal, Sandwich and Dover, is still reeling from the success of having topped the best-performers' league for weekly papers, with a 23.8 per cent rise in sales year-on-year.

It is with pride that he refers to his title as "a very traditional, no-frills type of paper". In the year since Smith became editor, he has championed a small-scale version of the Mirror's tactic.

In response to readers' demands for more news about their immediate vicinity, he launched a Dover edition, and put in place 17 community correspondents. "They give us lovely little yarns, such as the person in one village who kept having the gnomes in his garden nicked, so he chained them down. It made a lovely front-page picture."

Smith says the secret of his paper's success is its style, as well as its substance: "We don't try to ape the nationals at all, and certainly not the tabloids. I do think experience shows that local papers that try to ape them seem to come a cropper in terms of sales." When, recently, the local mayor was attacked by the local dog warden because of his relationship with the warden's wife, the paper splashed on the story, but it did so in typically restrained fashion. But it is the addition of the new Dover edition of the Mercury that Smith has to thank for the bulk of the sales increase.

Others, too, testify to the success of editionising. Three of the top- five best-performing weeklies put their success down to this tactic. And the editors of the best-performing regional evening, the Doncaster Star, and best-performing regional morning, the Paisley Daily Express, both point to keeping things "local, local, local" as the key.

There are, of course, other factors affecting the health of the local newspaper sector, not least a buoyant economy and an ownership restructuring, which has seen many papers return to the hands of dedicated regional press owners from large media conglomerates.

Piers Morgan admits that earlier attempts to increase regional coverage have been "a cop-out", consisting of either single-page changes or columns of regional news-in-briefs. "Project X" promises something different.

"What we've seen is that where we target the Irish and Scottish with their own news stories, and perhaps lead the paper on them more than the London-based stuff, then we do better. So, you would imagine that in places like Manchester and Birmingham, if we can offer some regional coverage which complements the main paper, then we can be successful, too. That's what we're going to do."

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