News that's just up your street

As national newspapers are seeing circulations fall, the regional press is experiencing a boom. Tim Luckhurst examines why local papers are doing so well
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The Independent Online

Lynne Anderson of the Newspaper Society is in bullish mood. The declining sales figures that have hit most national daily titles, including the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mirror, do not apply across her sector. Local daily newspapers are feeling the chill in much the same way as their national rivals. But Anderson is confident that the six-monthly ABC figures for the regional press, due to be published on Thursday, will confirm circulation growth in the weekly sector.

She says: "Six out of 10 paid-for weeklies are showing annual increases. Eighty per cent of them are doing well. Readership has grown by 15 per cent in 10 years. Advertising spend has grown every year for 10 years. We have been through a recession, but the regional press has not been hit. There seems to be room for more growth."

Independent evidence supports her optimism. Last month the Phillis Report on Government Communications recommended greater emphasis on regional communication. It explained that: "Research told us the public want information that is more relevant to them and where they live. We recommend that more investment should be made in communicating at a local and regional level."

Research by the Target Group Index confirms that 84.5 per cent of the population reads a local paper, which gives local newspapers nearly 40 million adult readers. Amid public scepticism about the trustworthiness of journalists, the local press seems to buck the trend. The Newspaper Society cites examples such as the decision by the parents of murdered Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman to grant interviews to the Ely Standard, and the Andersonstown News' exclusive interview with Freddie Scappaticci, the man alleged to be the IRA informer codenamed Stakeknife.

The Henley Centre has confirmed that most British adults regard their local newspaper as more trustworthy than the BBC. Lynne Anderson explains that this factor does not just apply to local angles on national news stories. "People are getting out of their homes into their local communities. They have leisure time and increased income to match. They want to know what's going on both in terms of listings and news events. Papers that focus on highly localised news are doing best."

Miles Barter, Northern Regional Organiser of the NUJ, says success is being won at a high price in industrial relations. "The whole of the provincial press has been in revolt for the last two years. We have had a great wave of industrial action. Pay is so low that people will not take it any more."

The NUJ has been involved in strikes over pay and conditions in cities including Bradford, Bolton, Rotherham, Spalding, Birmingham and Coventry. Strike ballots have authorised industrial action at the Yorkshire Post, Sunderland Echo, Lancashire Evening Post and Wakefield Express. Barter explains: "The average UK salary is £23,000. Trainee journalists start on between £10,000 and £15,000. Senior journalists with 20 or 30 years experience are only earning about £19,000."

There are 1,300 regional and local newspapers in the UK. They are the second largest advertising medium in the country, just behind television. In 2002, total advertising spend in the regional press was worth £2,870m. According to the Newspaper Society, that figure increased again last year.

Profitability has been the result of dramatic consolidation in the regional newspaper industry. Nearly £7bn has been spent on regional press acquisitions and mergers since 1995. The top 20 publishers now account for 85 per cent of all regional and local newspaper titles. Of the independent local firms that once controlled the sector only 97 have survived, and 46 of them own just one newspaper title. The largest regional publishers, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Northcliffe Newspapers and Johnstone Press, control 75 per cent of the total market.

Lynne Anderson says: "There has been massive consolidation since the 1990s and it has been good for the regional press. That is why there has been investment to permit more colour pages and better presses. A lot of people thought consolidation would kill the local press. In fact it has improved quality."

Miles Barter disagrees: "It is a phenomenal money-making machine, but I'm surprised by the scant regard for the quality of the content. Some of these employers will drop pages or sack staff just to save a few pence."

Professor Greg Philo of the Media Unit at Glasgow University says: "New technology and low pay are a very good combination for maximising profits. That is what the success of weekly newspapers is really based on. Circulation rises are not particularly large. I don't think the future for the local press is really secure."

Last October the NUJ launched a national campaign to fight low pay in the regional newspaper industry. If the Newspaper Society is right about the growing level of trust and affection Britons have for local weekly newspapers then the larger employers ought to be able to afford to meet their journalists' desperate demands for improved salaries.