Amid the gloom of falling circulations and advertising revenues, and with all the apocalyptic talk of the death of newspapers, a new paper is about to be launched. Are the investors and those involved in producing The North West Enquirer completely mad?
Bob Waterhouse, the new paper's editor, sits in Manchester, where the Manchester Evening News has lost 5 per cent of its sales year on year, and believes he can buck the trend. Like all launch editors of new papers - I have been there myself - he believes he has discovered a new audience, a new niche, that will enable him to succeed. Self-evidently, he is not mad.
But is he unrealistic? His paper, launching on 27 April, is aimed specifically at richer, AB readers. It is a weekly, coming out on Thursday morning. It is also expensive, at £1 a copy. But where it really is different is that it is targeted at a region - the north-west of England, nudging into North Wales. It will be sold up to the Scottish border and east to the Pennines. This area, says Waterhouse, contains 1.3 million AB adults.
He needs 15,000 to 20,000 of them to become regular buyers to break even. Advertising spend on reaching the AB audience in the region is £640m a year; Waterhouse says he needs £6m of this, and is currently trying to persuade the agencies to back him.
On the face of it, the targets look modest; but so do the potential revenues, and costs have a habit of exceeding expectations. Will 17 editorial staff really be sufficient to produce an 80-page tabloid weekly (with colour throughout) and a supplement twice a month? The region already has 12 daily papers based on bigger towns and cities, and 70 paid-for weeklies. All their circulations are declining.
The Enquirer's potential depends on whether the niche it has defined really exists, whether the concept of regional identity is meaningful. It would be an exaggeration to see a community of interest between Merseyside and Manchester - antipathy would be a better word. Carlisle and Blackburn have cathedrals, but little else in common.
Waterhouse sees it differently, and his argument hangs on the belief that the business and professional classes at whom his paper is aimed are much more regional than local in outlook.
"The Enquirer reader might live in Cheshire, work in Manchester, go to Liverpool for a cultural event, shop in Chester and walk in the Lake District. A lawyer in Preston has the same interests as a lawyer in Chester. A farmer in the Fylde has much in common with a farmer in Cumbria."
He accepts that the argument does not extend to Premiership football. "We will not cover the big football matches; we'll be covering more participatory sport. Editorially, we are looking at regional issues through regional spectacles: issues such as health, education, local government, investment and business. There are 100 quoted companies in the region."
Waterhouse has form. He launched a regional business magazine, North West Business Insider, which was sold for £4m and is still going strong. However, another previous newspaper venture, the North West Times, which he started in 1988, lasted 42 issues.
Now 65 (he says he will hand over the editorship after a year), he still refuses to accept the death of Manchester as "The Other Fleet Street", the title of the book he wrote in 2004.
The Enquirer project has been supported by two public/private venture capital firms, the North West Equ-ity Fund and the North West Seed Fund. Augmented by investments by the directors, including Waterhouse himself, more than £1m has been raised. Not a lot. But the team running the project is serious. The MD is Nick Jaspan, a key figure on Insider magazine; Stephen Parker, former MD of Trinity Mirror regionals, is on the board, with Sir David Trippier, a former Conservative minister, and Sir David Henshaw, chief executive of Liverpool City Council. The FT will handle distribution.
In a world of podcasts, The Enquirer has a whiff of traditional newspapering about it. If it succeeds, it will show that there is life in the old print yet. That would provide a little light amid the gloom.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of SheffieldReuse content