Dream a little dream…

May 6, 2009

Today I’m taking a quick trip to Cloud Cuckoo Land as I’ve decided that I’m going to win the £110 million Euro Lottery jackpot on Friday.

After treating myself a nice little mansion (complete with an indoor five-a-side football pitch) and a swanky pair of leather trousers (always a good look for a 30-something chubster), I’m going to use the change to buy myself a fair sized regional newspaper.

But this wont be a rich man’s folly (ok, maybe it will be a bit), as I honestly believe my newspaper will make healthy money. And if doesn’t, then at least I’ll still be doing something worthwhile with my not-very-hard-earned cash.

Yes, I’ve read all the blogs, articles and listened to the poisonous pundits predicting the inevitable demise of the regional newspaper. And I’ve seen the depressing financial statements of the big players.
I’m also a paid up member of the adapt-to-new-technology-or-die school.
But I think the reason many newspapers will cease to be is not because the newspaper is a dying platform.

It’s purely down to greed.

If the big companies could accept that the 30% profit margins of five and ten years ago will soon be about 10% to 15%, and that that the £180million of 2005 could fall as low as £80million in the 2010, then they’d have a chance at survival.

It wont happen of course. The shareholders are still demanding unrealistic dividends so the bosses will keep making cuts to try and meet them. They’ll do so until the last remaning journalist dies of exhaustion or it dawns on the final reader that he’s simply being fed rewritten press releases.

But I still believe in newspapers as a medium. TV didn’t kill the cinema or radio, and the internet didn’t kill books. Audiences fell, but they remained viable.
The smarter among you will point out that newspaper audiences are falling at a more alarming rate than those, but I think the figures will eventually bottom out.

And if you marry the remaining audiences to other platforms, then the product might still work.

So, how would my newspaper work? Well, basically as a not-for-profit venture.
I’m already stupidly wealthy remember and I’m pretty sure I could live with just the one hoveryacht.

I’m well aware that a stand-alone product probably wouldn’t cut it, but as I’ve not completed the internet yet, I’d employ smarter people than myself to play around with the multi-platform diversification malarky.

My goal is simple – a newspaper (or news product) which can sustain local journalism. While I wont care about increasing my profits every year, I’m not completely stupid and I’d want it to at the very least break even, rather than eating into the tens of millions of pounds sitting in my Barclays Super Saver account.

In very simplistic terms, the paper I work for currently can pay all its staff and overheads for the year in about six or seven months. Everything else is money in the bank (or rather subsidises other parts of the business and keeps the shareholders in hand cream). And this is in the middle of a recession.
Things would have to get a lot worse for it to start losing money.

My last post but one explains a bit about how my current paper is making money so I wont bore you too much here. Basically it’s by not being (as much of) a slave to rigid corporate policies and not giving away adverts so cheaply it harms the product.

So with the profit I think I can make, I can strengthen the business by reinvestment, putting cash aside for bleaker times and even sharing some of it about with those who helped to make it – either with genuinely fair salaries or, God forbid, bonuses.

As for staff, I’ve already got a mental list of the most talented individuals I’ve worked with for the more plum positions.

It’s a dream and a very flawed, naïve dream. But maybe one of us die-hard news types will strike it lucky and give something like this a go.

In the meantime I better get back to doing three people’s jobs.

Now for some good news

April 15, 2009

At a rather frustrating distribution meeting last week, I was pleased to get some good news about how well my paper is doing commercially.


It is now the third most profitable free weekly paper in the group. That may sound like a small thing, but to me it’s a massive milestone.


It’s important to note that although my rag is a free paper, it’s still a proper newspaper with 30 pages of news, two pages of letters, six pages of ents and five pages of sport. Pretty much all of which is original, local content.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the more profitable frees is recycled content from the daily with virtually no overheads attached to it.


This post may sound rather self-congratulatory, but its point is to show how far my paper has come. And more importantly, how a little bit of leeway from the non-editorial bigwigs has helped the paper blossomed.


Those who know me will be aware that this is my first editorship. I’ve been in the chair for two years now, but six months ago I was terrified that my short career as the big man was about to come to an abrupt end.


The paper was losing money, pagination had plummeted and the editorial space was constantly being squeezed.


The paper in itself wasn’t too bad and it was the second biggest in a market of three free papers.

But more and more the obsession with margins and targets started pushing the importance of its editorial content way down the list of priorities.


The advertising ratio targets in particular became the bane of my life. 65% of all space had to be filled by ads. The target was set during a time when the paper had 20 full pages of property advertising. This had fallen to just four pages by the time I took over.

But the bean counters were adamant that these targets had to be met. Arguments that we could get a higher yield per ad with a better news product fell on deaf ears.

And as I was only allowed to bring the paper up or down by eight pages at a time, I was spending more time sitting with the advertising manager, calculater in hand, to try and meet these ridiculous goals than I was sorting out the editorial content of the paper.

The paper got steadily smaller and tighter, and while the we actually increased the number of ads, we were making much less per page than ever before.


I was also working without any full-time reporters as both my talented young hacks had moved on and weren’t replaced. We survived for six months with myself, my deputy, a two-day-a-week reporter and one freelancer a week. I was lucky to find exceptional freelancers at various stages (and only the one turkey), and the paper was surprisingly not actually that bad.


But with the industry making drastic cuts across the board, I could feel the axeman not just breathing but hyperventilating down my neck.


Worse, I had bought my first house just a few months before the credit crunch kicked in and my wife was expecting our first child.


So when I was called in during a week of annual leave to meet the MD, I was mentally rewriting my CV and praying for a not-too-souless PR job.


Instead I was shocked to be told that the paper had been sold to one of my rival papers – and a smaller paper at that.

Bizarrely, I was not best pleased with this at first. I had spent months trying to best these guys and they had become if not quite an Arsenal, then a West Ham to my beloved Spurs.


But my initial reaction was wrong, once the papers had merged, with myself and my deputy keeping our jobs, life and the paper got better. I now have two full time reporters again and I can also take county-wide copy from the daily title. For the first time in years, my paper is also covering court stories again.


The best thing about the merger was how much emphasis was put on the editorial side of the paper.

The thinking was to create a good quality, open newspaper, and then to try to make it work financially.

News was put before profit, even if it was just while the paper bedded in.

It was expected that it wouldn’t even make money to start with, but the profits would grow along with the paper’s reputation. In actual fact the paper made a small profit straight away.


The first edition looked superb (despite a few minor irritations), with twice as many pages as before and more open pages. More importantly the advertisers were prepared to pay proper rates for as their ads were not competing with five or six others on a page.

Our weekly revenues are now twice that of my old paper, and this is in the middle of a recession.


It’s not all been plain sailing and for the first few weeks I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the longer commute and extended hours. But my week is now perfectly manageable, and more importantly I’m proud of what I’m doing again.


The paper is a long way from being perfect – another reporter would vastly improve things – but we’re holding the local authorities to account better; we’re getting good debates going in our letters page; feedback has been largely positive and I feel like an editor once more rather than a manager, a firefighter or a ‘news facilitor’.


So with all the doom and gloom about at the moment, I still have some faith papers can survive, but only if their editorial content is treated with respect.

The days of the 30 % profits margins have gone, and yes, that £180m profit is now just £120m.

But the fact is profits can still be had, and good profits at that.



Two things MPs can do for journalism

March 19, 2009

I’ve just read Dan Mason’s blog regarding MPs debating the future of the regional press. He suggests three things that they can do to start. http://www.danmason.co.uk/?p=664

Some interesting ideas, and it’s inspired me to come up with a couple of my own.

1. Talk to actual journalists. My biggest fear is that the MPs will simply listen to the owners rather than those at the coalface.

During these dark times, journalists seem to be further away than ever from their employers and many believe the owners are the ones responsible for the dire state of the industry in the first place.

I do appreciate how important it is for papers to make money, but the need to keep shareholders happy with unsustainable margins has become much, much more important than the journalism itself.

Just look at one of the greatest issues being raised by the owners at the moment – the relaxation of rules on how much media they can own. They want bigger empires so they can make more money.

Journalists biggest desires is much simpler – they want enough resources to be able to do their jobs properly.

So if the MPs debate is about protecting journalism, talk to the journalists, not the businessmen.

2. Help journalists set up not-for-profit companies.

The changes to the way council housing stock was handled during the 90s, while not perfect, had an incredible effect on the lives of council tenants. Housing associations were given grants from the Government to get started, and most are now self-sustaining and making money. But this is done without profits being the main goal.

So why not a similar business model for newspapers?
The Government could give grants (or loans) to allow journalists to either set up their own not-for-profit papers, or to buy existing papers and turn them into not-for-profits.

Answerable to a trust of local, independent (non-political) individuals, such papers would need to make a certain amount each year to keep going, but the push for greater or unrealistic profits would not affect the quality of journalism.

Indeed, any profits could be reinvested in technology or more staff, and perhaps even in years of greater than expected profit, staff could be given bonuses (perhaps like the John Lewis partner system).

Oh well, one can but dream.

Milk and honey

February 27, 2009

Right, after bashing university students in my last post, here is a great piece by third-year journalism student Steve Carpenter. It’s a report of a speech given by Bob Satchwell, he of the Society of Editors fame. He sent it to HoldtheFrontPage, who I hope paid him properly for it.  http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/news/090227satchwell.shtml 

Now I’ve always felt Bob was too quick to defend the tabloids whenever they stepped over the mark rather than giving them the odd kicking that they clearly deserve, but I can respect his views and he usually argues a good case.

But this speech he made to students at Coventry beggars belief.

It may be a case of telling his audience what they wanted to hear – ie that their pointless three year course (sorry Steve) is likely to lead to a job and (according to the PG) that the ‘land of milk and honey’ will return to newspapers soon – but it’s such rose-tinted nonsense that it could have been written by one of the ‘owners’.

Now before you dismiss Bob’s claim as utter tosh, or choke at his statement that the downturn could be good for the press, read this other little gem from him first:

“There are lots of stories about journalists being made redundant, which hides the fact that there are lots of other journalists that have actually been employed. There are more journalists now employed than there were ten years ago.”

Marvellous. Well done Bob. What spectacular awareness of our industry you have.

To be fair, I suppose you could argue that stories about the Kent Messenger group slashing a quarter of its staff, Northcliffe, Johnson Press and others ‘centralising production’, the heavy cuts at Bristol… (I could go on but you get the point)….are taking the limelight away from the seven reporting jobs being advertised on Holdthefrontpage at the moment – a whole two of these are for trainees.

I was actually about to join the society this week – which funnily enough has just been complaining about a fall in subscriptions – but I really don’t think I’ll bother now as it seems to have become the official mouthpiece for the owners rather than editors struggling to get their ‘products’ out because of the lack of staff.

I tell you what Bob, I’ll send in my cheque as soon as this land of milk and honey returns.

Who neesd subs anyway?

February 13, 2009

Sub-editors are “a layer that can be eliminated”, according to former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade.


I’m going to ignore the comments at the bottom of the PG story which point out Roy’s own failings, and look at his arguments instead. And I haven’t found a copy of his speech, so I’m trusting the PG report.

First of all, Mr Greenslade suggests that journalists are now “highly educated” and can sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

I really don’t know where to start with this one, but I’m going to resist the urge to push my tongue into my bottom lip and make some incredibly un-PC duh noises.

Even though I am someone who can string a sentence together, I am always grateful for an extra pair of eyes. Afterall, even world renowned authors have their copy checked.

As a trainee hack, my writing was probably cleaner than most, but it would have been insane to let that naive 20-something write straight into the paper.

Actually, one of my district papers was that stupid. All my copy for the Smalltown Obscurer went straight on the page, maybe with a spell check if the sub could be arsed. And the hopeless editor certainly never read it.

To be fair it generally worked ok – but this was because it was my home-town where I knew practically everyone so took huge pride in my work.

Of course I made a few errors, but they were usually simple things which the sub or editor could have picked  up. I think it was incredibly unfair looking back that I had to carry the can alone.
But most trainee hacks go where the work is and don’t necessarily have the strong local knowledge.

Mr G also stated that “We’re now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don’t need to have their work changed.”

That use of “of course” really winds me up.

The statement reminds me of the awful (but enjoyable) Judge Dread film (Stallone at his best) where these clones are created in a couple of hours, complete with all the combat skills of seasoned soldiers.

Does Mr G really believe that hacks come out of journalism college knowing everything they could possibly need to know?  Even though many believe they do, this is just nonsense “of course”.

Apart from law and shorthand, nearly all journalism is learnt on the job. Having a strong sub-editor who can talk a reporter through their mistakes and mock their ignorance is a vital part of creating a well-trained hack. Without the guidance of subs, particularly in a reporter’s formative years, the overall quality of reporting will fall incredibly quickly.

And I couldn’t let this point pass without looking at the “well-educated” reporters we have these days. At every paper I’ve worked, there have been one or two outstanding journalists, but these are always outnumbered (often heavily) by journymen, idlers, wastrels and charlatans.

I also know of a few reporters who can bring in some fantastic stories and have excellent interview techniques but can’t write very well. I’d much rather have a reporter like that and help them develop their writing than a handful of spoon-fed monkeys who write perfect prose.

Mr G argues that all of this isn’t ideal, but commercially it might be necessary.

Again, I just can’t agree with that. Poorly subbed writing can quickly damage a paper’s credibility. Readers will be less inclined to read a paper littered with spelling mistakes and errors, and a loss of readers means a loss of advertisers.

It may see saving on the wage bill in the short term, but it damages the product, and thus its commercial value in the long run.

Mr G also believes there are two types of sub-editors – those who work on local or natioanl rags to templates and the creative types who write Sun headline.

I have to wonder whether Mr G has stepped into a regional newspaper office in the past ten years.

Templated pages are used, but not all the time. Pretty much every page is created on the differing merits of the story, headline, pictures and other furniture.
While the front few pages of my paper always have the same shaped adverts, the pages certainly don’t follow the same rules every week and look very different.

Mr G then makes a point, perhaps contradicting his previous arguements, that it’s not that we don’t need subs, but rather we can hire someone for £1 an hour to do the same job in a developing nation.

The local knowledge is the strongest counter to that, but there are other arguments.

As an editor I imagine it would be very difficult to try and talk through what I want from a page over the phone. To do that when English isn’t the individuals first language would make it even tougher.

I can see a time when technology will improve and the role of the creative sub will be less  – say a programme which can put all the various aspects of a page together like a jigsaw and suggest several layout options – but we’re not there yet.

And I don’t believe there will ever be a time when copy does not need to be subbed, unless we’re happy to become a txt spk nayshun of dunderheads.

And we’re off…

January 15, 2009

The Town Crier is dead. Long live the News and Crier.

After two days of pulling my hair out, slapping my forehead in frustration, tears from the ad-girls, a constant barrage of swearing, stupidily long hours and crap IT support (sounds a bit like a normal week to be fair), my relaunched paper finally hit the streets.

And I have to say I’m pretty pleased with it.

It’s bigger than my old rag with more news, more leisure, puzzles (well, a crossword) and even a weekend TV section (bit pointless really as it has no satellite).

I’ve got more resources too, or rather I have the novelty of some full-time reporters.

It was tough though, and due to the problems getting the archaic systems to work (my ‘new’ PC genuinely dates back to 2002), we didn’t manage to get started until Monday lunchtime. Pretty scary as the deadline was Tuesday night.

But we brave few (three of us) put in some long hours and managed to sub close to 40 pages, finishing at 9.30pm. Not too shoddy considering two of us didn’t know how to use the systems here and we had to manually type in all the new fonts as the style sheets don’t work.

And all that hard work clearly deserves some reader feedback. So imagine my delight when the first email I receive has the subject: “Boycoating your paper”. (Well it is a bit chilly at the moment).

To understand the nature of the complaint, the paper had a wrap to announce the relaunch, with the headline: “Have we got some great headline news for YOU!” (caps and exclamation mark were not my idea).

Below were PDFs of the final front pages of the former two newspapers – one with the M&S closure splash, the other about an armed robbery. A 40pt subdeck below explained that “we’ve combined your favourite local rags into one that’s even better”. Page 2 of the wrap details all the changes, complete with a lovely letter signed by me (I didn’t actually see ‘my’ words until the paper left the press).

Here’s a transcript of the letter:
On receiving a first copy of your News&Crier I was horrified to see the Headline reading:
Have we got some great headline news for YOU!  followed firstly by:  ‘M&S WILL AXE FOOD SHOP’   ‘Cinema terror as armed raider strikes’  and ‘Marina residents could lose homes’. 
It is an insult to all your readers at this very difficult time and not worthy of further reading for fear that the Editor may have overlooked something far more serious printed inside.
Good luck for the future!
Still, at least they signed off in a pleasant manner.

Christmas survival

January 2, 2009

This has to have been one of the quietest Christmas periods I’ve ever experienced news wise, probably not helped by the fact that for most of the past two weeks, the only people in the office have been myself and my deputy.

We just about survived the tricky festive season, despite having no run-up. Until Wednesday, December 17, we were under the impression that we wouldn’t be producing a Christmas or New Year edition. Then the powers that be changed their minds. Christmas is tricky enough without any features or follow-ups in the bag, but it was harder still as my freelancer had finished on December 19.

My part-time reporter has worked just three days since December 22, but somehow we still managed to do both papers, albeit not to the usual standards.

It was a smaller paper than normal, and I filled ten pages of news easily enough. The first three pages were proper hard news. Added to that were a couple of quickie features, a review of  the year and the rest was just re-worked press releases (with an extra quote or two) .

There was also the usual ents pages, a community round-up page – originally started as  a dumping ground for the most boring nibs, but actually proving very popular – and sport (reduced to three pages).  Not great, but it looks reasonable enough.

One of my rivals did an interesting Christmas edition, pretty much giving up on news for the week. They had a poster front page advertising pictures of local nativity plays. Pages 2, 3 and 4 were all police press releases about robberies – all of which had been in our paper and website the week before.

Then the next 19 pages were variations on the Jesus, Joseph and Mary theme as advertised on the front. And that was pretty much it.

I guess I’m a bit jealous that our own nativity coverage was poor due to the fact that we have only occaissional access to photographers. On the other hand, I was a bit annoyed that we’d worked really hard while they’d gotten away with a glorified picture supplement.

Still, their’s was more popular with our shared readers.

Anyway, next week sees the welcome return of a freelancer so we should be nearly back to the normal, or rather back to being understaffed as opposed to ridiculously understaffed.

Failing the new breed?

December 30, 2008

Some 48 per cent of candidates passed the NCTJ‘s National Certificate Examination last month, the lowest pass rate since April 2006.


Now I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the NCE, having seen some very talented journalists fail it and some truly awful ones pass first time – but this low pass rate worries me slightly.

I beginning to suspect that the pressures on the modern journalist are becoming so great, that editors, news editors subs and senior reporters are failing the new breed.

We can all whinge about falling standards, the ridiculous growth of journalism degrees and the failures of our education system to teach basic grammaer (couldn’t resist), but are we really doing enough to give them the support they need?

In my first job I had a news editor who despised me and I learnt very little. Fortunately at my next paper my new boss took great interest in what I was doing and really helped me improve my basic skills. At my next paper, a kindly sub took me under her wing and highlighted my language errors through a mixture of shaming me down the pub in front of my peers and her red pen over my raw copy (I am actually extremely grateful for this).

And in my current humble surroundings,  I have put in considerable effort to help my two former trainees develop. One of them passed the NCE with flying colours and was asked to test next year’s paper, while the other aced her mocks but left the paper before her final exams.

More recently I find myself resisting the urge to throttle my staff for daring to speak to me.

I suspect my change in personality is due to my increased workload. Nowadays I seem to have five sports and three news pages to sub, a sackful of letters to put into something approaching English, a shouting match with an arsey councillor and countless HR forms to fill in. Usually all before lunch.

Previously when a press officer wouldn’t answer a simple question or decided to take a public servant length festive period with five press queries outstanding, I’d patiently suggest ways for a reporter to work around them. Eventually the message would get through and the reporter facing a brick wall seeks a way round it on their own. Now I just want a reporter to get on with it and write the bloody thing already.

I’ve been lucky with most of the freelancers I’ve hired since losing my two full-timers as they’ve all been self-starters with decent levels of common sense. But I worry what sort of editor I’m going to be when I finally get some new trainees in.

On a slightly different note, perhaps one silver lining in this whole job-cull crisis is that I should be able to be a lot pickier when I finally do get to hire someone – and it’s been hinted at that this day will be coming soon.

Traditionally a small paper like mine can’t compete with the daily regionals, but then two years ago holdthefrontpage.co.uk alone would regularly have 30 reporter jobs advertised. Today there are just three. And with all those who have lost their jobs, anyone hiring must be inundated with CVs.

It means I will no longer have to consider settling for the feckless student from a dodgy university who thought journalism sounded like a fun degree. Or giving a chance to the run-down solicitor/accountant/estate agent going through a mid-life crisis who has decided that they’d like to ‘write’ for a living.

Now when I’m employing, I’m hoping I will only have to look at those who have put themselves out to get work experience and articles published, rather than the layabout who thinks life owes him a living just because he studied journalism at university.

In contradiction to my earlier fears, I actually think I’d still relish hiring an enthusiastic unmoulded lump of clay.