Bill Hagerty On The Press

The health of the weeklies grows more robust each day
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Some local journalism is so execrable that one wonders whether those who regularly buy the papers are anxious to keep abreast of affairs in their neighbourhood or simply need something to keep the draught from coming in under the door. As for the profusion of free weeklies, many should perhaps be designed to fit exactly the bottom of a budgerigar cage.

Some local journalism is so execrable that one wonders whether those who regularly buy the papers are anxious to keep abreast of affairs in their neighbourhood or simply need something to keep the draught from coming in under the door. As for the profusion of free weeklies, many should perhaps be designed to fit exactly the bottom of a budgerigar cage.

But by no means all. The annual Newspaper Society awards for the weekly press made last week showed that, overall, this is a vibrant sector, brimming with enterprising journalism and groundbreaking ideas. The latest available circulation figures indicate that more than half of the country's weeklies are putting on sales. Of those paid-for titles bludgeoned by advertisement-heavy free-sheets, many believe the changing face of newspaper-reading habits will stimulate circulation. The prognosis is encouraging.

Keith Redbourne, who edits the Newspaper Society's Paid-for Weekly Newspaper of the Year, the Wokingham Times, admits that at 10,375, sales of his 18-page broadsheet - a 48-page tabloid section and various supplements deliver added value - are static, if not dribbling downwards. But the Surrey and Berkshire Newspapers title, part of the Guardian Media Group, makes a profit and, despite a staff of only 10, including several enthusiastic but raw junior reporters, obviously maintains admirable editorial standards.

Redbourne believes that in the affluent commuter belt where his paper circulates, lifestyle choices determine that readers prefer their news in a single package and welcome one that reflects the local community. Justifiably proud that his small local triumphed over some resources-rippling competition, Redbourne is optimistic that largely parochial content, delivered with what is now award-winning elan, will enable the Wokingham Times to grow.

If the decline of the national and regional daily and evening press promises a brighter future for high-class paid-for weeklies, the success of Kent on Sunday, the Newspaper Society's Free Newspaper of the Year, can be attributed to bold initiative. Raising the capital for the £2 million launch of a giveaway Sunday title that is actually available from Saturday afternoon - the Saturday sports results became an instant casualty - was a commendable achievement for former Trinity Mirror executives Paul Stannard and Ian Patel. Winning three major awards in the two years since the paper was first published out of its Ashford base is the stuff journalists' and managers' dreams are made of.

The big idea that saw the paper climb to a print run of 122,000, with few returns, was distribution through newsagents and supermarkets rather than letter boxes. The stores are paid for each copy picked up by a customer and for all remaining copies returned, an inducement for the stores to play fair and resist dumping the odd bundle in the river. A slim-to-anorexic editorial operation, under the supervision of former People reporter and agency news editor Gary Wright, produces 96 pages of Kent-based stories and features. Advertising is buoyant.

Editorial director Patel says the paper promised readers and advertisers that it would depart from the archetypal anodyne free-newspaper image and aim to match the best journalism of the regional press. Kent on Sunday is breaking even financially, he told me, and should soon be putting framed black bank statements alongside the trophies on the sideboard.

Potential imitators are doubtless watching closely. The health of the weeklies grows more robust by the day.

The Observer presses on regardless

Talking of circulation problems, rumours of the The Observer coming under the auctioneer's hammer are surely wildly exaggerated? Yet a story that the paper was to be put up for sale flown by The Mail on Sunday still flutters in the skies despite a prompt and unambiguous denial issued by the Guardian Media Group.

True, The Observer is treading water in the wicked Sunday market, where it is probable that only the MoS, News of the World and Sunday Times are making significant profits. The Observer's high-quality monthly sports, food and music magazines - expensive journalistic supplements rather than even more expensive CDs and DVDs - have failed to maintain the upward momentum they originally provided.

Circulation for this month is, I understand, likely to be slightly up, but the year-on-year figure will be down on last November, when the rugby world cup provided an all-round boost.

Disappointing for editor Roger Alton, but hardly yet catastrophic.

It is unlikely he will be attracted by the temporary fixes sometimes supplied by DVDs and the like, especially in the knowledge that the Mail on Sunday's sale slipped on 14 November despite its free CD.

Alton is more likely to be relying on the £50m GMG investment to enable The Observer as well as The Guardian to adopt a mid-size format. The "Berliner" presses provide strong evidence that The Observer will not be unloaded - for such machinery to be left idle on Saturday nights makes no sense at all.

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