Tim Bowdler: With his background in ball bearings, it's no wonder profits roll off the press

As a former engineer, the Johnston Press boss is an unlikely media baron. But running 244 local papers demands a pragmatic approach, he tells Tim Webb
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Tim Bowdler, the chief executive of regional newspaper group Johnston Press, is an unlikely media mogul. Having worked in the engineering, ball bearings, steel, power and construction industries, he probably wouldn't describe himself as a mogul at all. He is disdainful of the London-centric media village.

Tim Bowdler, the chief executive of regional newspaper group Johnston Press, is an unlikely media mogul. Having worked in the engineering, ball bearings, steel, power and construction industries, he probably wouldn't describe himself as a mogul at all. He is disdainful of the London-centric media village.

"The media is obsessed about writing about itself," he says. He does not think highly of the press barons who treat their national newspaper as a plaything, although he chooses his words carefully (you never know who might call one day). "You have heard it said that national newspapers attract people who are interested in trophy assets."

And he is not bothered in the least about what national newspapers think about the regional market. "There may be an element of people looking down on regionals. They are the less glamorous end of the media business. But regional newspapers are more exciting than nationals. We have no aspiration to own a national newspaper," he adds just in case anyone missed the message.

In many ways, Bowdler does not fit the stereotype of a newspaper executive at all. Unlike many, he is not a former journalist himself. When the then chairman Freddy Johnston called him up 10 years ago to offer him a job, he reportedly tried to cancel the interview because he thought he did not have the right background. ("Don't believe everything you see in the newspapers," is his only comment on the incident.) "He [Freddy Johnston] was not looking for someone with too many preconceived ideas."

By circulation, Johnston Press is the fourth-largest regional and local newspaper publisher in the UK, putting out 244 titles such as the Yorkshire Post and the Sheffield Star. The company's mission statement is "Life is local". It might be cheesy, but it pays. Johnston Press had a turnover of £492m last year and made pre-tax profits of £128m on an operating margin of 33 per cent, the highest in the sector. Over three-quarters of its revenue comes from advertising, with the rest from newspaper sales and printing.

Bowdler doesn't quite say selling newspapers is the same as selling ball bearings, but he clearly does not waste time navel-gazing on the state of the media. "A lot of people think that the newspaper industry is different," he says. "It's different in that there is the editorial aspect. Other than that, it's still a business."

Journalists - and editors - do not always recognise this, he says. Some Johnston Press editors have been known to kick up a fuss if a newspaper inserts a special supplement in an edition to sell more advertising. "I'm a pragmatist. Some editors can be a bit too precious," he says.

He insists that he does not interfere in the editorial content of newspapers, provided the editor stays within a "broad framework". Clearly there is a grey area. He recently hosted a Johnston Press editors' dinner. "While editorial independence is sacrosanct and has to be observed, that should not stop discussions about how the newspaper is perceived," is how he describes the conversation that night.

There is no "Johnston Press" view, he says, arguing that editorial decisions are more likely to be compromised by newspapers owned by individuals rather than big groups such as Johnston Press. "There is no threat to independence from consolidation. Historically, proprietors have had clear views about aspects of what is going on in their community, even having a vested interest."

Bowdler is big on community. It is a word that crops up a lot and he wants his newspapers to be at the heart of it. One campaign run by a Johnston Press newspaper, the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, several years ago epitomised what he believes regional and local newspapers should be all about. Called "Stop the Grot", the campaign sought to make the council get rid of graffiti and improve the image of the city. Editors went out armed with bucket and sponge to set an example.

So he does not tell editors what to put on the front page. But they must reflect community values, he says, even if that means getting their hands dirty. "If the editor thinks that the community is in favour of fox-hunting, he can support it."

The National Union of Journalists has been highly critical of Johnston Press over its pay levels for journalists. Several years ago, a graduate could expect a starting salary of less than £11,000 on one of the group's evening newspapers, the bottom end of the industry scale. Some journalists went on strike over pay.

Bowdler reluctantly admits that pay levels were too low. "We have done a lot to improve journalists' pay and conditions and for other people. I would accept that if you turn the clock back in some cases, the levels of pay needed to be addressed." The NUJ acknowledges that basic pay has gone up around 3 per cent annually in the past few years, but says that more needs to be done.

Asked about falling circulation across the industry, Bowdler is realistic. "People aren't buying evening newspapers on a six-day period. They have less time and more choice about how to spend their money. It's a question of stemming the decline. It's quite a challenge." Johnston Press is meeting this challenge by organising home deliveries of newspapers and publishing extra supplements and magazines to boost advertising and sales, particularly in the youth market. The group is also expanding its online operations and organises exhibitions.

Johnston Press bought the Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers group in 1999, and Regional Independent Media (owner of the Yorkshire Post) two years ago for £550m. Bowdler jokes that, following this three-year acquisition cycle, 2005 should see another deal. "We are keen to grow further. The pressure is on for next year," he says. "But it's important to be patient."

Bowdler, who frequently jets off with his Swedish wife to their holiday home in her native country, insists he is happy in his job and says he has no plans to go elsewhere. If a bloated, inefficient national newspaper (a description which fits most) wanted to inject some no-nonsense management, they could do worse than to appoint him. But you probably won't see this in print much - because, just as Christmas is unpopular with turkeys, it would not go down well with many journalists.

BIOGRAPHY

Tim Bowdler

Born: 16 May 1947

Family: married, two daughters

Education: 1960-65, Wrekin College; 1966-69, BSc in engineering production at Birmingham University; 1973-75 MBA at the London Business School

Career

1969-73: GKN Sankey Ltd

1975: Commercial manager, RHP Bearings

1977: General manager, business operations, RHP Bearings

1981: Director and general manager, Sandvik Steel

1984: Managing director, Spooner Industries

1987: Managing director, Chloride Motive Power

1989: Director of Northern Division, Tyzack & Partners

1990: Divisional managing director, Cape Architectural Products

1992: Divisional managing director, Cape Building & Architectural Products

1994: Group managing director, Johnston Press

1997: Chief executive, Johnston Press

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