Trinity Mirror’s decision on Friday to close seven local newspapers, in what it described as a “bold, digital-only approach”, provides much to discuss. The future of local papers for a start.
Let’s take Berkshire, where the company’s market-leading papers, the Reading Post and its free sister title GetReading, have been sacrificed in an attempt to boost its online getreading.co.uk website.
The two weeklies were direct descendants of the Reading Evening Post, and were created in 2009 by then-owner Guardian Media Group when the daily’s sales fell to 12,979 copies. They were sold to Trinity Mirror along with the Manchester Evening News in 2010.
What’s intriguing is the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ latest figures, which show that the Reading Post circulated 12,389 copies a week in 2013, 50% selling at 70p, the rest free ‘pick up’ copies; meanwhile, GetReading circulated 65,185 a week, 95% home-delivered and 3,319 selling at 70p.
Compare that to the competing Reading Chronicle, owned by the independent Berkshire Media Group – and soon to be the town’s only paid-for paper: last year it distributed 5,981 copies a week, 80% of them paid-for, while its free sister title, the Reading Midweek, reached another 55,449 homes.
Put simply, Reading appears to be a highly competitive newspaper market that until last Friday was led by Trinity Mirror’s titles, with cover price revenues alone estimated to be worth more than £300,000 a year.
At a stroke, Trinity Mirror has willingly given this print position away – Berkshire Media must be rubbing their hands in glee – in order to free-up costs and experiment with a cheaper ‘digital only’ push.
If this ‘closing-costly-print-in-favour-of-digital’ model works, it could soon be introduced elsewhere, as Trinity Mirror’s own statement hinted at last week: “[T]his is an important and pioneering step that might, in time, be applicable to other existing markets or indeed new ones.”
I wanted to explore this strategy in more detail, but my approaches were blocked by Nick Cosgrove, of Trinity Mirror’s PR company Brunswick Group, who simply said: “I’d refer you to the statement issued on Friday.”
That statement has little depth or reasoning. Here are just some of the questions I wanted to ask the company:
• Are the newspapers you’re closing making losses? If not, why are you closing them?
• If profit margins are narrowing, why not simply reduce costs to sustain the businesses?
• Why have you not put these titles up for sale instead?
• Is it because you’re attempting a less costly, ‘digital only’ experiment which, as you say, might be applied elsewhere if successful?
• What does that mean for tens of thousands of traditional readers who want to receive your products in print?
• Your newspaper closures will result in dozens of job losses: how will this affect the reporting of areas like courts and council, and other roles that traditional newspapers play in an open, democratic society?
• How will your ‘digital only’ products still stick up for local people, still investigate rip-offs, misdemeanours, corruption and crime?
Trinity Mirror, of course, is a plc and so is perfectly entitled – some would say legally bound – to employ strategies it thinks will best make the most profits for its shareholders.
But if its ‘digital-only’ gamble is played out across the company’s regional portfolio, with fewer fixed costs, and fewer reporters, and if this is then looked at and emulated by other publishers, it could spell catastrophe for the local newspaper industry.
Whether or not this is the right strategy deserves tough questioning, analysis and discussion – before there’s nothing left to debate.
● Steve Dyson is a former editor of the Birmingham Mail and the Evening Gazette, Teesside, both published by Trinity Mirror. His personal website is here