In June last year, the respected analyst Claire Enders went before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee and gave it the stark warning that half of the UK's regional newspapers would be closed down within five years. These were not the words of the kind of digital evangelist only too happy to see the end of "dead trees media", but the considered opinion of a leading industry commentator who asserted that bloggers were no substitute for "honed and trained" professional local journalism.
Enders's suggestion that 650 papers would shut by the end of 2013 was taken very seriously. The then Labour culture secretary Ben Bradshaw said: "Good-quality local news is vital for the health of our democracy and we face losing it completely unless something is done." His Tory counterpart Jeremy Hunt, now Culture Secretary himself, said: "It would be really sad if all our local papers vanished. They are also usually the only effective way of holding local councils to account." Polly Toynbee, columnist on The Guardian, screamed: "This is an emergency. Act now, or local news will die."
A year or so later, the picture is somewhat different. Whereas 60 local newspapers did close during 2009, only eight have gone to the wall in 2010. The UK's local press isn't quite ready to draft its own obituary.
So far this year there have been 19 new papers launched, from Northcliffe's The Grimsby Post to Tindle Newspapers' The Edmonton Herald in London, meaning a net increase of 11 titles in the national portfolio this year. This week, the Culture Secretary cleared the way for the regional press to be involved in the future provision of local television news.
Enders's prognosis was "damaging and clearly ludicrous", says Georgina Harvey, president of the Newspaper Society and managing director of Trinity Mirror Regionals, publishers of such titles as the Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Mail and Liverpool Echo. "It was never, ever going to happen. Looking forward we would have to close 200 newspapers a year for the next three years for that prediction to be right. It's completely nutty."
The renewed optimism among local news-paper owners is based partly on a revival in advertising revenues, particularly in the property sector. John Fry, chief executive of Johnston Press, which owns The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, says advertising income was down 33 per cent in the first two quarters of 2009, but is now down only 2.9 per cent year-on-year according to figures for late July and August. "It basically shows that the rapid drop that we had is appearing to bottom out, which has enabled [newspaper] companies to start rebuilding their profitability. Our profit grew in the first half, and I think that's true of other companies as well."
"We haven't closed any titles whatsoever as a consequence of the downturn," says David Fordham, chief executive of Iliffe News & Media, publisher of titles including the Cambridge Evening News and the weekly Staffordshire Newsletter. "There has been much greater stability this year. It's not great but it's not the threat that appeared to be on the horizon a couple of years ago. It hasn't really materialised into a doomsday scenario."
Fifteen months after the dire predictions, Douglas McCabe, press analyst at Enders Analysis, says local newspaper companies have only escaped closure of titles by having "slashed their costs" and cut profit margins. The industry "has declined by more than a £1bn in a couple of years", he says. "The real pain is still to come, as publishers move from shaving the existing model to rethinking the model in its entirety."
The earlier predictions of Armageddon were influenced by events in America, where the regional press has suffered badly. The closure in February last year of the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News in Denver caused great alarm, as did the demise the following month of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which moved to online-only production after 146 years in print. The company that owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times filed for bankruptcy. But the New York Times reported recently that hedge fund "vulture" investors are circling newspaper businesses in anticipation that the worst days are over.
This is Harvey's view. "Regional newspapers are more relevant to the modern-day reader than they have ever been," she says. "Life is becoming increasingly local. People spend more than half their time within a five-mile radius of their home and they are shopping nearly two miles closer to their home than they did five years ago."
In response to the public demand for "hyper-local" content, Trinity Mirror has recently partnered with 25 Birmingham bloggers who, in return for sharing their material, are given access to the newspaper group's photographic archive. "It's a symbiotic relationship," says Harvey.
This move to the hyper-local is echoed by Johnston Press. "The trend in the market has been towards more local; people want to know about their own community and what's happening around them, they don't care so much about five or 10 miles away," says Fry. The group's websites are becoming "more micro", encouraging interactivity with readers. The secret, he says, is "lots of short, sharp stories" and few features. "Local papers that become too featurey tend to move away from localisation. Local sport is extremely important and that, these days, is not only football," he says, citing increased coverage of surfing in the Scarborough Evening News.
Iliffe, which like Johnston Press has seen its digital advertising revenues grow by 10 per cent this year, has a total audience of 750,000 unique monthly users across the group's websites. It has upped the print distribution of the Milton Keynes News and the newly-launched Luton on Sunday, both free titles. It has also introduced a quarterly magazine, Cambridge Business, which will go bi-monthly next year, and is set to offer the city a glossy entertainment magazine called CB. "In these niche areas there are opportunities for new title launches so all in all regional press is showing a lot of innovation and the titles have generally proved to be more resilient than many people foresaw," says Fordham.
But would staff on local newspapers share the renewed optimism of their bosses? Barry Fitzpatrick, head of publishing at the National Union of Journalists, says not. "Most of our journalists are working multi-platform and they are working long hours to deadlines that are increasingly difficult to meet. I'm fearful of what the long term effect will be on journalism itself and on the health of a lot of people that are trying to earn a living as journalists."
Fitzpatrick says claims of a revival by regional news businesses are not supported by the print sales of their products. "They don't have a business model yet that convincingly shows that they're able to address the problem of falling circulations." According to figures for the first six months of this year, only one of the 68 regional daily newspapers – the Dundee Evening Telegraph, which is owned by DC Thomson – increased its circulation. Harvey argues that the statistics are positive, showing that the rate of decline in sales has slowed, with many newspapers – notably the Belfast Telegraph, the Guernsey Press & Star and the Dorset Echo – showing minimal circulation falls. But weekly titles suffered far worse, with 57 per cent recording a drop in sales of more than 10 per cent compared to the first half of 2009.
Fitzpatrick also challenges the notion that regional media is making a successful transition to a more hyper-local service. He says cross-group advertising deals with national supermarket chains add no local insight and he criticises the lack of presence that many publications have in their communities, criticising Trinity Mirror's decision to move the Manchester Evening News offices to Oldham. "That intimacy that was there traditionally and historically is going. You are lucky if you get a desk in the town centre that you can call and leave ads at and even if there is still an office it's increasingly rare that you find a journalist there."
This, argues Harvey, fails to appreciate the necessary restructuring that regional news-paper groups have had to undertake to give themselves a future. Journalists are not at their desks but "on patch", filing from their laptops, she says, praising the coverage of the Raoul Moat story by the The Journal and the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle and the Coventry Evening Telegraph's reporting of a cat dumped in a wheelie-bin, two national stories that showed the strengths of local papers. "Head counts have gone down but that doesn't mean there has been any detriment to quality," says Harvey. "I believe we have emerged a stronger, fitter and more flexible organisation and we are now able to embrace a multimedia future."
Not all readers, and not all hard-pressed journalists will agree. But at least they are working. Of the titles that closed last year, nearly all were free weeklies and none of them was a market leader in its community. The regional press is proving hardier than many experts thought.