New quality weekly for Manchester is a good idea on paper

A newspaper aimed at the the North West is planned for launch in the Spring. Ian Herbert talks to Nick Jaspan, the mastermind of the project, about how he plans to capture a notoriously difficult market and make 'stacks' of money
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The Independent Online

It is a brave pronouncement to make at a time when the regional press is axing jobs and merging editorial functions but Nick Jaspan is adamant. There is "stacks" of money to be made from a new regional newspaper, he believes.

With a publishing reputation bolstered by the Insider regional business magazines which he sold seven years ago, Jaspan is about to launch a new regional weekly newspaper for north-west England, aimed at 1.3m AB adults from north Staffordshire to Carlisle. The people of the north west are looking for quality regional information which neither the locals nor the nationals are currently providing, he says. His weekly, to be launched in the Spring, is conceived as a 96-page paper with regular supplements and a staff of 35.

"People say you need to research and research to establish an opening like this but that's not how it's been for me," said Jaspan. "This is a gut instinct, based on my experience with Insider." If the Insider's journalistic record is anything to go by, the daily regionals will have something to think about. The magazines, eventually sold by Jaspan's Newsco to Regional Independent Media, delivered the kind of corporate insight that few regionals could match.

But is Manchester, where the new title will be based, ready? The only precedent is the old North West Times broadsheet - edited by Bob Waterhouse, the former Guardian journalist whom Jaspan has prized out of retirement to edit his new paper. Staffed by journalists released as Manchester's national newspaper scene declined, it closed in 1988.

That paper was a daily and the new title is a weekly, points out Jaspan, who also anticipates stronger content on his front pages than the North West Times sometimes achieved. "We are simply saying 'we hope we can entertain you for 20 to 30 minutes a week,'" he says. "Government policy is on far more regional lines now. We plan to tap into that and break national stories."

On current evidence in Manchester, the going may not be easy. The city is still reeling from Guardian Media Group's decision to axe City Life, Manchester's once edgy and highly readable arts magazine, after 23 years of publication. The magazine was established in 1983 as a successor to the radical New Manchester Review by the triumvirate of Andy Spinoza (a Manchester graduate with an English Literature MA grant burning a hole in his pocket), Chris Paul and Ed Gilnert. It tapped into the bohemian, scruffy, concrete place that Manchester then was, with the aspiration to be a cross between Time Out and Private Eye. The plan was to "make a name for ourselves and get up some noses," says Spinoza.

Many still fondly remember the magazine's risky 'Citizen' diary - though amid the revelations there were some spectacular mistakes. Few were more memorable than the one which ended with a libel suit from high-living businessman Kevin Taylor, who was at the centre of the Stalker Affair. The magazine had continued to display some flair in recent years, with memorable insights such as that delivered from Sir Alex Ferguson's lair. "One of the most charming aspects of this [visit] is the cheery way Ferguson greets everybody coming in," the magazine reported. "At one point a young man passes by and Ferguson bellows: 'If I'm not top of the league this week I'll nut you.'"

Despite such qualities, City Life had failed to turn a profit in recent years and GMG regional chief executive Mark Dodson concluded that with listings - a key part of the magazine's sales proposition - moving into the digital world, it was time to bite the bullet.

The newly appointed Dodson has more than enough on his hands at present. His Manchester Evening News is currently facing the toughest ad market since 1989 and GMG is also rolling out the group's Manchester TV station, Channel M, into Sky Digital this year. Dodson declines to discuss whether GMG can afford to continue its expensive strategy of selling the Friday edition of the Evening News at 10p. "Everything is under review," he says.

GMG is retaining one vestige of City Life - its profitable property section which will be relaunched as a standalone product Urban Life with 25,000 printed copies - 10,000 of which will be mailed free to city centre residences. Also challenging in that marketplace are the glossy Manchester versions of Cheshire Life and Living Edge magazines. This is all a far cry from the late, lamented City Life. "We were about real ale and opera at the same time; as much for the chunky sweatered bearded bloke as for the students," recalls Spinoza. "It is all too easy to get too youth orientated and to lose touch with the soul of a place."

Jaspan's vision seems to be for some of the early journalistic fearlessness of City Life without the bohemian strands. "'Edgy' is something I would not want to describe us as," he said. "The fundamental values of good journalism can make this work."

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