Chris Oakley - who rose from being a junior reporter on the Sevenoaks Chronicle to become a major player in the boom times for the regional press - has given his verdict on the current state of the industry.
Oakley, who led the buy-out of the Birmingham Post and Mail via Midland Independent Newspapers and also set-up Regional Independent Media, concludes: "The real losers from the financial folly of the past decade are communities up and down the country which are now worse informed than a century ago".
He also claims: "No daily newspaper, particularly one with a limited ability to editionise because of editorial cuts and artificial printing schedules, can now, for example, meet the needs of the majority of people in Birmingham."
Oakley gives his verdict in an article called 'The men who killed the regional newspaper industry' taken from a new book What Do We Mean By Local?, edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler and Ian Reeves, which is to be published by Arima on March 27th.
He writes: "In a couple of decades, managements who have overpaid for acquisitions, over- promised to City investors and failed to recognise the threat and opportunity of the Internet have come close to destroying an industry. You be the judge of the extent of the MIN team’s culpability in creating the financial climate that brought this about.
"The paid-for local press grew up to alert and to protect individuals, to build and bind communities, to defend and campaign for those in need of support. Where can they turn now when planners slice up their neighbourhoods, Tesco bulldozes their tennis courts and the local school or library is closed? A pillar of localness is crumbling.
"Perhaps the new entrepreneurs will restore it but, for the time being at least, the real losers from the financial folly of the past decade are communities up and down the country which are now worse informed than a century ago, a depressing outcome in what is supposed to be the age of information overload."
Oakley on the big city dailies:
"Mourners for the regional newspaper industry of old are in the cemetery and we may not have to wait long for the hearses. First to arrive will be the big city dailies which face multiple misfortunes. They are almost exclusively owned by publicly-quoted companies which have huge debt burdens to service while attempting to maintain or improve year-on-year profits and margins at a time of falling revenues.
"As a result, costs continue to be cut in ways which have rendered regional dailies less readable and less relevant. Editorial workloads have been increased to service online media while staff has been reduced to a level where the generation of original, well-researched material or the undertaking of local investigations is almost impossible."
Oakley says remote printing has led to “evening” titles having deadlines the previous afternoon and states: "The argument that this does not matter because the advent of the Internet means such titles can no longer break news is specious.
"Other media, such as local radio and TV, have been able to break news ahead of newspapers for decades, but readers still expect to find the day’s most important stories covered in their own regional daily."
He adds: "Sales and household penetration have already fallen below a level where they can produce an acceptable response for advertisers. To use Birmingham as an example, sales of the evening paper are now around fifty thousand a day in a city of one million."
Oakley writes: "Local or regional newspapers need to be able to reflect the identity of the community they serve but in most major cities that community identity has fractured into different and often conflicting ones, represented by ethnicity, race, religion, culture and economic divisions.
"No daily newspaper, particularly one with a limited ability to editionise because of editorial cuts and artificial printing schedules, can now, for example, meet the needs of the majority of people in Birmingham."
Dailies going weekly:
"Converting evenings to weeklies, as Northcliffe is doing, may save smaller titles in places such as Bath, Torquay, Scunthorpe and Exeter but is unlikely to offer more than a temporary reprieve for big city titles like the Birmingham Post and the Liverpool Daily Post.
"Only the family-owned dailies in smaller, more remote cities with a more coherent community identity and with no debt burden are likely to survive. Weeklies with their lower cost base and lesser dependence on national, property, motors and jobs advertising stand a better chance.
"Survival chances are best for family-owned weeklies. Those owned by publicly-quoted companies face similar cost-reduction challenges to their sister dailies with major reductions in their editorial staffing levels, unrealistic production deadlines for remote printing, closure of local offices and, in many cases, editorial decisions taken many miles from the communities they serve."
The impact of the internet:
"Perhaps no one can honestly claim to have recognised fully the competitive pressures that the Internet has brought. However, if the industry had supported Fish4, regional newspapers could now have the largest and best used property, motors and situations vacant sites…and online estate agency RightMove would not be worth more than even the biggest regional newspaper group."
It's not all doom and gloom:
"Those newspapers which are not heavily indebted still produce enough cash to provide their family owners with an at least comfortable income, as they have done for generations. New entrepreneurs – and, of course, Sir Ray Tindle – have recognised this and responded by launching highly-localised weekly, sometimes monthly, titles.
"It is fiendishly hard work to get them off the ground and individual profits are small but, just like the first family owners, each title can be the building block in an expanding group. There are examples in every region, reflecting local life in the way the Sevenoaks Chronicle did half a century ago. They will never be a private equity investment vehicle, never a City favourite but they remain a good lifestyle investment – which is how many regional newspapers began."
- Oakley at one time had an executive post with the Mirror Group which had taken over his buy-out company MIN. According to his article, "my largely ineffective trips around the Coventry, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast and London circuit were interspersed by strategy meetings, the highlight of one being a video of a naked Tory MP cavorting with his young girl lover recorded by a camera hidden in a wardrobe."
- Oakley now runs his own editorial consultancy in Brussels.
- Pic: Birmingham Mail news vendor (Jon Slattery)