Media: Read all about it: Murdoch effect reaches provinces

It's not just the big boys of newspaper publishing who are embroiled in price-wars, writes Naomi Marks. Provincial papers are also being undercut by their rivals
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The Independent Online
In the former mining town of Coalville, the editor of the local newspaper is worried. For here in North-west Leicestershire, the heart of hunting country, Julian Calvert is beginning to feel a little hunted himself.

An experienced editor of local weeklies, Calvert knew a year ago - when he accepted the editorship of the 106-year-old Coalville Times - that he would have to undertake the usual extracurricular activities that come with such a position: addressing local societies, opening fetes and judging bonny baby competitions. What he didn't take on board was the need to accept the post of general in a newspaper battle he believes is neither necessary nor fair. For Calvert's paper has become the unwitting target in a pricing war that starkly illustrates the recent polarisation in the world of local papers.

The weekly, which is served by an editorial staff of 12, abides by the tried-and-tested formula of "if it moves, report it". It serves more than 80,000 people living in North-west Leicestershire, taking in the former mining community of Coalville as well as its prettier, more historic neighbour of Ashby de la Zouche. Always independently owned, it has been in the hands of the Kuchlin family since the Fifties .

Calvert is determined the Coalville Times will not be put out of business."We've been here for over 100 years," he insists. "We're part of the community and we're respected. Others can weaken us but they can't fatally wound us."

The Coalville Times is one of a dwindling band of independent weeklies run on lines which today can seem somewhat anachronistic. Papers such as the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, which is run by Richard Boyden, the fourth generation of Boyden's to look after the weekly.

Boyden fears for his paper should it ever be forced into other's hands. "The heart and soul of the paper would be ripped out," he maintains, describing his charge as "an independent island in a corporate sea". Boyden says his family's business is intimately tied to the well-being of the town, and he insists that trust built up over many years means his offices are the first port of call for locals with both good and bad news.

Like Boyden, Derek Smail runs the Southern Reporter in the Scottish Borders on lines which would have larger publishers shaking their heads in dismay. He is the eighth generation of Smails to look after the weekly, and he happily admits he accepts a lower profit margin than the big boys because of his belief in the community value of his family's business. His brother, John, edits the paper and more than half his staff have been with the company more than 25 years.

For Smail, independent publishing is about more than the bottom line. And he believes Nineties values reflect this. "Fundamentally, there's an increasing awareness of the need for community," he says. "Only local papers whose staff and management are rooted in the community can truly reflect a community."

But recent trends question his optimism for the future of local independent publishing. Since 1995, a series of convulsions has taken place in the UK regional publishing industry, as the lure of electronic media persuaded major publishers to pull out of the local arena. A new breed of major players emerged: some, such as Trinity International, have been in the business a good while; others, such as Newsquest, relied on finance capital for entry into what was no longer seen as a smokestack industry. Many medium-sized companies sold out to the new big boys, so that today, according to the industry's own association, the Newspaper Society (NS), in circulation terms more than 90 per cent of the regional press is in the hands of 20 publishers.

Beneath the big picture of increasing concentration, there still remain 100 or so small newspaper publishers, 68 of them one-title companies, mostly family-owned. They operate under conditions of increasing pressure - though many are holding on to their independence with a ferocity that belies their size. Which brings us back to Calvert's troubles at the Coalville Times, a paper which has in the past refused to sell out to near-neighbour the daily Leicester Mercury. The Mercury, along with its sister free weekly Mail series,is owned by Northcliffe Newspapers, the provincial publishing wing of Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail & General Trust, the second biggest regional newspaper company in the UK. The Times's problems started in January 1997 when the Mercury embarked upon a 13-week campaign selling at 10p, nearly a third of its normal weekday price. But only on Thursdays, the day the Coalville Times hits the streets. And only in the North-west Leicestershire area where the Mercury competes head-on with the Times.

So successful was the campaign, boasted the Mercury at the end of the 13weeks, it decided to extend the offer period for another 13 weeks. Fourteen months later, the Mercury is still price-cutting on Thursdays.

Calvert says he has no problem with honest competition. He's angry, he says, because the Mercury is not playing fair and, though cheap, is actually short-changing its readers when it comes to local news. "If they wanted to change more pages for the edition, that's fine, but they haven't done that," he says. "If they wanted to stick extra reporters into our area, I wouldn't mind that. But they're just competing in a way we can't possibly match. We can't cut our price to 10p. It's not an option."

Until now, he has had to content himself with attempts at embarrassing his rival via the letters page of the journalists' weekly, Press Gazette. Predatory pricing in national newspapers may be the stuff of Lords' debates, but few want to know about independent publishing at a local level - even though, as Calvert says "it's just as competitive, and the stakes are just as high".

But now he is getting support from outside the industry. The case of the Coalville Times has attracted the interest of the MP for North-west Leicestershire,David Taylor - who, perhaps awkwardly for him, writes a weekly column for Thursday's 10p Mercury. Taylor plans to bring the issue of local papers owned by national groups being able to "pick off" smaller rivals via heavy discounting to the attention of the Trade and Industry Minister when the Competition Bill is next debated in Parliament. "A free local press is immensely valuable to local communities, it deserves every reasonable effort by Government to secure its future," he says.

Meanwhile, in Coalville, newsagents say sales of the Mercury on a Thursday are nearly double those on other days. Calvert admits it is only now the Coalville Times is rallying back from an initial 5 per cent drop it suffered following the Mercury's price-cutting. Having resorted to readers' offers and promotions, sales are rising.

It would be easy to paint the Coalville Times as the plucky little fox. But Julian Calvert does not want to prepare his paper's epitaph, never mind one saying "went down fighting". Rather, he is mighty tired of the whole mismatched chase.