Ian Burrell: The MEN is enjoying life at Trinity Mirror alongside other big-city titles

Media on Monday
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The Independent Online

Maria McGeoghan reaches out for her phone. "We gave every reporter one of these lovely things, a Nokia N8," she says. "When they go out on a job we don't ask them 'Will you take video?' anymore, we just expect it do be done."

As editor of the Manchester Evening News (MEN), McGeoghan has seen the benefits of turning her journalists into camera operators and has promised to award a new iPad to whoever generates the most views on the MEN website this year. Hits include an interview with Liam Gallagher in his clothes store Pretty Green but the competition leader is reporter Pete Bainbridge with a clip of a Salford star of the Channel 4 series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, which has had 28,000 views.

She also expects her journalists to use their Nokias to tweet, especially when they are attending council meetings and can give instant alerts on budget cuts and local planning issues. The MEN recently broadcast on its website a live stream from a full meeting of Salford City Council. This is life on Britain's largest big city evening paper, a year after Guardian Media Group (GMG), which made pre-tax losses of £171m in the year to March 2010, cut its 142-year-link with the title and sold it to Trinity Mirror.

David Sharrock, managing director of MEN Media and former chief operating officer of GMG Regional Media, claims the organisation has been rejuvenated under its new owners. "Being part of the Guardian Media Group we had very little in common with The Guardian," he says, noting that the paper has benefited from alignment with titles such as the Liverpool Echo, Birmingham Mail and the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. "We are now part of a group where there are lots of centres doing effectively the same things. It's great to be able to share ideas and see what is working and what isn't."

Trinity Mirror bought the MEN, plus 30 other regional titles including the Reading Post, for only £7.4m. The deal enabled GMG to extricate itself from a £37.4m contract to print the MEN and other titles on Trinity Mirror presses. After the sale, Trinity promptly upped sticks and moved the MEN and its family of 27 north-west weeklies into that same printing site in Chadderton, Oldham.

That switch, last September, seemed like a signal of the demise of a flagship of Britain's regional press. The MEN was abandoning its prestigious city centre home in Scott Place for a drab brick factory at the side of the M60. To cushion the blow, staff arrived at their suburban desks to find personalised tea mugs and a guide to local attractions from Oldham Council. Sharrock, though, says the move has been well-received. "Being on the M60 makes it much easier for us to serve the patch." All the staff, commercial and editorial, had a tour of the printing presses to give the sense of a little ink on the fingers. "It's such a buzzy site," he says. He also argues that GMG's Manchester base, which opened in 2007, was unnecessarily plush. "Our move into our new palace coincided with challenging times and a lot of people had negative vibes about the building."

The MEN has a small city centre presence near Piccadilly Gardens, with eight "hot desks" for passing reporters and facilities for readers to place adverts. It has also reversed a previous policy of closing satellite offices, reopening small sites in Accrington, Macclesfield and Sale.

The paper's circulation for the last six months of 2010 was 93,348, down from the 96,719 of the previous six months. The MEN operates a hybrid strategy of free and paid for, handing out copies in the city centre on Thursdays and Fridays. Sharrock describes circulation as "stable" and says readership of free copies has increased from 1.5 to 2.2 readers per copy. In the past nine months, the MEN has generated £50.9m of revenues and made £5.7m in profits for its new owners. "We were ahead of the plans that we were set," says Sharrock.

At the MEN's daily editorial conference, a campaign to highlight dozens of unsolved killings is counterbalanced with a feature on the Cheshire fashion for painting the toenails of pet dogs. "It's a different world, Cheshire, isn't it?" comes a comment. A video has been sent to the MEN website of the American rap star Nas visiting a Manchester milk shake bar late at night. The sports desk is focused on Manchester United's crunch Champions League game with Chelsea and the storm around Wayne Rooney. Football success and the imminent arrival of BBC departments at Salford's Media City mean the MEN will have plenty of opportunity for celebrity coverage, though McGeoghan says she is most focused on city council cuts.

This week Sly Bailey, the Trinity Mirror chief executive, will address Manchester's business leaders and attempt to persuade them that the MEN has its confidence back. She'll make that claim not from Chadderton but from the panoramic 23rd floor bar in the Manchester Hilton.