Media: All the news, from up the road and across the globe: Regional daily newspapers are undergoing radical changes in an attempt to revive a flagging market, writes Michael Leapman

WHEN Joe Holmes, operations director of the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail, arrived in the city from Liverpool three years ago, he was taken to the 14th floor of the papers' office tower. There he looked out over a forest of cranes stretching towards the new National Exhibition Centre some miles distant.

'I thought: 'This is the place for me,' ' he recalls. 'There was a taste of the future here. These people had foresight.'

Today there is not a crane to be seen. The taste of the future is embodied in glistening office buildings plastered with To Let signs. The newspaper group, now sold to the management by its debt- plagued former owner, is, like the press all across the country, vainly seeking signs of an end to the recession.

Altogether, the regional morning papers now sell 1.2 million copies a day, compared with about 11 million for the national dailies. If the recession deepens there is a danger that they will be squeezed further. On the plus side, most are supported by strong local evening titles, whose total market is now around 4.5 million - but which often come out worse in the contest with television for both audiences and advertisers.

The depressed economy is only the latest bad news for the regional press. Local evening papers have seen their sales dip by 40 per cent over the last two decades. Morning titles have fared less badly but there are precious few of them: only 16 British morning papers are now published outside London, compared with 66 at the turn of the century.

The non-London morning press has an image problem. It is staffed by enthusiastic young people who produce lively journalism, yet more than any other section of the industry it finds it hard to define a typical reader or decide what kind of new reader it wants to attract.

A symptom of this identity crisis is the number of radical changes that the papers are undergoing.

The Birmingham Post, not long before the management buyout, reverted to a broadsheet after seven years as a tabloid; in February the Newcastle Journal switched in the other direction, from broadsheet to tabloid; this year the former Glasgow Herald became simply the Herald and a few months later went through a management buyout of its own.

The best way to grasp the dilemma of the regional morning press is to sit in on a daily news conference. At Thomson House in the heart of Newcastle, headquarters of the Journal and Evening Chronicle, half a dozen executives troop into the office of the Journal's editor, Neil Fowler, at 10.30 each morning. The news editor reads out the day's menu.

He starts with international and national developments: horrors from Bosnia, world reaction and calls for United Nations intervention. The Prime Minister is off to the Olympics. A strike may halt flights from Birmingham and Manchester - Newcastle so far unaffected.

Then come local stories and everyone perks up. Prisoners at a nearby jail are to get a lecture on how to keep pets; Gateshead man celebrates 105th birthday; man undergoes surgery after being bitten in face at a South Shields hairdresser; photocall for the Christmas panto at the Sunderland Empire.

From the global to the parish pump: no national newspaper is burdened with so broad a brief. The danger is of spreading the mixture too thinly, satisfying nobody. That was happening when Mr Fowler arrived in Newcastle as editor last summer.

'It had been in a 30-year sales decline,' he says. 'Down to just over 50,000 from 125,000 in the Sixties. It came through in our research that we weren't first choice for enough people. After the war, when people were buying two or three papers a day, the owners were happy for the Journal to be a second or third choice newspaper. But when papers went up in price and people bought fewer, the Journal fell off the end and we didn't get the advertising.'

In the past there had been moves to take the paper upmarket, appealing to ABs, the wealthiest segment of society, whom many advertisers like to reach. It was thought it could become a Tyneside version of the Scotsman, also owned by Thomson Regional Newspapers.

'Our research showed there weren't enough ABs here to make that viable,' Mr Fowler said. 'We'd have gone down to a circulation of about 35,000, and on that kind of paper you have to spend more on your journalism. Even the national broadsheets do badly here - they have about 7 per cent of the market compared with 15 per cent nationally. So there we were, producing a paper that turned a lot of people off.'

The new tabloid Journal is closer to the Daily Express and Daily Mail than the Sun or Daily Mirror. The change seems to have worked so far: before the redesign the paper was selling 51,000 copies a day, but it is now up to 57,000.

Advertising is holding up. Regional papers make much of their money from property and employment ads, two of the chief victims of the recession; yet because the Thatcher boom never boomed quite so loud on Tyneside, times in the North-east are today less hard than in the Midlands and South.

Birmingham, on the other hand, is the traditional centre of the motor industry, always sensitive to dips in the economy. When Chris Oakley, now group chief executive, led the pounds 125m management buyout last November of the company that publishes the morning Post and the Evening Mail, he, like many others, believed that the end of the recession was at hand. The group will, he says, be in profit at the end of the current year, but not by as much as he had expected.

The Post survives with the smallest circulation of any English regional daily: 26,000, roughly the figure before it was turned into a broadsheet in February 1991. After the change and subsequent sales promotion it went up to more than 30,000 but has since settled back where it was. Even so, it is an essential source of local political and business information and manages to find some good stories: the recent tale of a man who infected several women with the HIV virus was a Post exclusive.

Mr Oakley went to the company in 1989, after it had been bought by Ralph Ingersoll, the United States newspaper proprietor, who saw it as a base for expansion in Europe - until the recession forced him to sell. The main motive for turning the Post back into a broadsheet was to differentiate it from its much more successful stablemate, the tabloid Evening Mail, selling more than 200,000 copies a day.

'There was confusion in the market place,' he says. 'People just saw the Post as another edition of the Mail. Turning it into a broadsheet helped to differentiate it more, and people still associate broadsheet newspapers with quality. At the same time we tried to increase our appeal to young readers and women.

'It all worked. Our research shows that we did reach a lot of new readers. But what we hadn't expected was to lose so many of the old ones.'

Mr Oakley insists that the paper contributes to the group's profits and will continue to benefit from editorial investment. He wants to see sales rise to 50,000, but appreciates that this will take a long time.

Certainly he cannot hope to match the Herald, whose sales of 121,000 are the highest of any broadsheet published outside London. Yet in May, Lonrho, owner of the Observer, decided to divest itself of George Outram, the company which publishes the Herald and its tabloid sister the Evening Times. A team of six managers raised pounds 94m to buy it.

Arnold Kemp, the Herald's editor, was one of them. He was also behind the dropping of 'Glasgow' from the name earlier in the year. Like its Edinburgh rival, the Scotsman, it regards itself as a national paper for Scotland: the change in name reflects that.

'There's rapid demographic and social change going on here,' explains Mr Kemp. The city of Glasgow is in decline in terms of population - it lost around 100,000 people between censuses. Our constituency is expanding and we now cover most of Scotland. We still have 70 per cent of our sales in Glasgow and Strathclyde but the rest is growing.'

The Herald contributes more to the group's profits than the higher-selling Evening Times and Mr Kemp is gratified that the latest figures show its circulation down less than 1 per cent year-on-year in a declining market. 'As a percentage of the Scottish population we do as well as the Daily Telegraph does in the whole of Britain,' he points out.

Yet if newspapers are to make increased profits on a static circulation thay have to reduce costs, and here the Herald is at a disadvantage. Since the challenge to the print unions in the mid- Eighties, production costs have been rationalised nearly everywhere. The Herald and Evening Times, like the English regionals, have introduced modern colour presses and electronic typesetting, but trade unions are still strong here, which makes it harder to enforce cuts.

'Glasgow is traditionally a high cost centre,' Mr Kemp admits. 'It was a centre of intense newspaper competition when we had three houses competing - Beaverbrook, the Daily Record and Outram's. There is still the Record (now owned by the Mirror Group) and us and we have to pay people like our van drivers and clerical workers more than in most cities.'

Mr Kemp believes a paper such as his can provide a complete service for readers in his area, even though he has to provide full Scottish news as well as covering the British and international stories in the London papers.

'What sells the Herald is its direct relevance to the lives of Scottish people,' he says, 'although I wouldn't want to stop them buying the best London papers: it's part of the civilised way of life.'

It is easier to carve out a special niche in Glasgow than in English cities whose sense of identity is not as strong. Dougal Nisbet-Smith, director of the Newspaper Society, the trade association for the regional press, worries about its long-term future.

'We had a crisis conference at the end of last year,' he says. 'We're very worried that young people are losing the reading habit. At school they aren't being encouraged to read papers and at home they watch television.'

Certainly I detected nothing but confidence about the future in Newcastle, Birmingham and Glasgow. Yet if business does not improve, more management buyouts could be in prospect, as companies seek to realise capital assets. These are bold ventures; but without the resources of a large company behind them the new management teams may prove less able to withstand a long periods of adverse economic conditions. Confidence may not be enough.

(Photograph omitted)

Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Shami Chakrabarti
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Business Development Manager Content/Subscriptions

£50k + commission: Savvy Media Ltd: Great opportunity to work for a team that ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker