End of the old guard: The sale of the Manchester Evening News

The sale of the Manchester Evening News brings to an end a historic chapter in British newspaper publishing. Ian Herbert reports on the proud title laid low by sibling rivalry

Monday 22 February 2010 01:00
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The Manchester Evening News's distinguished history of campaigning journalism betters that of any other regional newspaper in Britain but right now it is struggling to maintain a headquarters in its own home city. And can't even write about that fact.

Manchester's most famous newspaper faces relocation out of town – to a soulless printing facility in Oldham, owned by its new owners Trinity Mirror. The anticipated move follows a decision by Guardian Media Group (GMG) to sell the MEN and 22 other papers to Trinity Mirror for a cash value of £7.4m, plus a release from the £37.4m contract GMG signed with Trinity Mirror to print the MEN and other titles for the next 10 years.

In the days when the MEN's legendary editor T E Henry ("Big Tom" to many) was helping Harold Evans, no less, to mastermind campaigns limiting industrial smoke emissions, or demanding the pedestrianisation of St Ann's Square – today one of the city centre's finest oases – the paper was protected against disposal. The proprietors of The Guardian (then the Manchester Guardian) acquired the MEN back in 1924 when John Scott, son of CP Scott, brought it into the group's ownership and the original deeds of the Scott Trust, which was established four years after CP's death, extended its famous duty of care to the evening title.

GMG has been unwilling to disclose the contents of those deeds, deeming them "private documents", though a copy obtained by The Independent reveals how they compelled trustees to "use their best endeavours to procure that the ... Manchester Guardian and Manchester Evening News ... shall be carried on as nearly as may be upon the same principles as they have heretofore."

Only in 1992, soon before The Guardian acquired The Observer, were those terms torn up and re-written, the MEN removed from the trust's responsibility and the objective redefined as securing "the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity".

Symbolic though the apparent contravention of the original deeds might be, MEN staff have more contemporary reasons for bitterness, feeling that their business, which was making £20m profit quite recently and £14.9m in the year to March 2008, has been cast off at the first hint of losses, which have not even been reported yet. There was a £500,000 profit last year – though red ink is now imminent.

It was not how the relationship between the titles was supposed to be. Evans memorably describes in his recent autobiography My Paper Chase how, despite the fact that "some of my friends on the News in the 1950s felt that the Guardian staff patronised them from being from a lower universe," the evening title was always the cash cow which subsidised The Guardian. The profits T E Henry's legendary editorship generated –- the paper nurtured a near monopoly on job and classified advertising – kept the Manchester Guardian going when it drifted into the red in 1961 and plunged to the brink of closure in 1966.

The MEN has certainly lived through trauma in the past year to maintain that relationship – slashing its journalist numbers to 50 while weekly titles from Wilmslow to Prestwich have closed down offices and retreated to Deansgate in Manchester city centre. All this while GMG, now losing £100,000 a day, was ambitiously expanding its multi-media operation in London.

The abiding sense among MEN staff that The Guardian occupies another world to them was never felt more acutely than when the journalists from the Manchester trade union chapel headed to London last year for a crucial meeting with their highly supportive Guardian counterparts - only to be told that they must wait around for a meeting room to become free, as it was being used for a yoga class. "Nothing against that but we were fighting for our professional lives at the time," says one Manchester staffer.

And while there is no British newspaper tradition of national and regional stable-mates sharing resources, the MEN's experiences of covering Manchester United in Europe have nurtured the same sense of gulf. "There have been times when we have had one man at very big matches and they'll have four," says one reporter who has survived the culls carried out by GMG Regional Media, as the local business has been known.

Judy Gordon, the National Union of Journalists mother of chapel at the MEN, says staff now just want the sale completed. "The Guardian has not got any money of its own. It has only got what other people give it," she says. "We've made all those changes to stem the fact that our profits are dropping. Then they ask: 'How much can you give us now? Nothing? OK, Bye.' Well, fine. We move forward with a new owner. We know about Trinity's reputation for being ruthless and we hope there won't be too much of 'Why do you have sub editors?' But we think after all we have gone through we can be an asset."

GMG, which within six months will move its remaining band of Manchester staff out of offices in the grandly named Scott Place on Deansgate, insists that even in 1924 no one was under any illusion that the MEN existed to help pay The Guardian's way. GMG has some other profitable subsidiaries – radio stations and the car sales operation Autotrader – so the dynamic has changed and the regional titles no longer have a role.

The finance director of the Guardian's regional business, David Sharrock, will be kept on as the new managing director by Trinity, with due diligence under way ahead of an expected sale completion on 18 March. Among his first tasks is to convince the new proprietors that moving the MEN to Oldham is not good for the paper.

Georgina Harvey, head of Trinity's regional division, says the company is yet to decide on the relocation issue, though she argues that the significance of a visible office presence can be overstated. "People say that because there is no bricks and mortar, there is not a presence," Harvey says. "But field sales staff and frontline reporters working remotely can spend more time on the patch."

Harvey's fondness of expressions like "monetising audiences" might not have gone down too well with T E Henry, nor her declaration that the ad revenue driven nature of regional news businesses make "eyeballs" the be-all and end-all. But despite Trinity's closure of 27 titles in the past year and the Birmingham Post going weekly, she speaks enthusiastically about the Manchester titles.

There is no doubting the rewards of Trinity's fiercely commercial focus on its multimedia local newsgathering franchises. The group has achieved around 70 per cent penetration among the adult population of its areas of operation, with 20 per cent of that achieved online.

MEN journalists were bemused by GMG's decision to take the evening title free in the city centre, only to begin charging for it again three nights a week. But Trinity seems relaxed about that hybrid. "In our ad driven business model, ad pounds follow eyeballs and it's not right to equate free content with low quality," Harvey says. "Metro has shown that large audiences can be monetised through local and national display ads."

Such is the language of the world the MEN is entering. Back in the old one, GMG - having divested itself of its regional titles - is moving into a new regional newsgathering operation in the shape of the "Guardian Local" citizen journalism project in Leeds. Tweeting this week, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger described the Leeds experiment as "a tiny toe in the water." There is a harsh irony in the timing for MEN staff with their uncertain future, though GMG insists there is no contradiction. "Guardian Local" is a small-scale, experimental project driven by the Guardian's editorial team and has no connection with the decision to sell our regional media business. Rumours last year of a "Manchester Local" project were inaccurate, says the spokesman, though if the idea catches on across Pennines, it may be hard for GMG to resist trying the samething out in the city where it started out.

That could pitch The Guardian into competition against its trusty former stable-mate. Now there's a battle the inheritors of Big Tom Henry's proud old title really would like to win.

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