Ed Miliband predicts a bright future for the regional press

You could be forgiven for thinking Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, hates the Press. He has, after all, repeatedly lumped the whole of the Press into the pot marked ‘tainted by phone hacking’ in his quest to take the lead in the charge against News International.

But Miliband was adopting a different tone during a visit to Fort Dunlop, the Birmingham home of the Birmingham Mail, Birmingham Post and Sunday Mercury last week. Not only did he flag up the difference between the national and regional Press, he also predicted a bright future for the latter as a result of the phone hacking scandal:

To quote the Sunday Mercury’s article:

Mr Miliband was quick to congratulate the Sunday Mercury on picking up new readers last weekend, saying that trust was a key issue in people turning to their local newspaper.

“I think it will be a case of local newspapers increasing their circulations,” he said as he toured our Fort Dunlop HQ. “In the months to come, I think regional papers will see people turning to them. The public are worried about phone hacking. I think a lot of people feel let down, and the reality of the situation is that trust has broken down between readers and national newspapers.

“It is important for the whole industry that the trust is rebuilt, and local media have a big role to play in that.”

Hmmmm. I’m sure most Sunday regional newspapers have seen a rise in sales in recent weekends as a result of the News of the World closing. Hopefully, those readers will like what they see and stick with us.

But people generally ditching national newspapers in favour of regional newspapers because they feel they can trust them? I’m not so sure.

Circulation declines in the regional press might, in part, be down to a breakdown of trust between reader and newspaper, but I don’t think it’s the main factor.

If someone decides, say, to ditch The Sun, are they going to pick up their local daily newspaper instead? I somehow doubt it – because it isn’t a like for like swap.

The challenge for a regional newspaper is about finding out where it fits into the life of the reader in the 21st century. There are plenty of glib excuses out there for what’s harming regional newspapers. The catch all of ‘it’s the internet wot done it’ is an easy one to trot out, but it’s far from the full story.

Working out where people are more likely to buy their newspaper and the time of day they are likely to buy the newspaper are factors people far more intelligent and knowledgeable than me have spent years getting to grips with.

But it’s also about shouting about working out what makes regional newspapers stand out, and why people might want to buy the newspaper. If for, example, a newspaper comes to the conclusion more people are likely to buy a copy in the morning, and so switches to overnight printing, then it should go without saying that breaking news is no longer the sales driver it once was.

Is that a bad thing? For journalists used to the buzz of pulling together a paper at breakneck speed while most of the rest of a town or city is just getting into work, then it can feel that way. But it also gives regional newspapers the chance to play to their strengths.

Regional newspapers employ more journalists to cover a patch then any other media. Regional newspapers regularly set the news agenda for local radio and TV too. Even when a breaking news story takes place – a murder or event which allows other media a foot in the door – it’s still normally the regional newspaper which sets the agenda. The Manchester Evening News’s coverage of the Stepping Hill Hospital deaths is a good example of this. It also made sure it reminded its readers which paper broke the story, and which paper kept them ahead of the game throughout.

During the height of the Raoul Moat hunt last year, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle prided itself on not getting carried away with the rumours making the front pages of the national press, nor did it set out to scare people unnecessarily. After all, the paper’s reporters will be around on the patch long after the nationals have headed home. Making sure the reader knows the difference between the local paper and the nationals is essential.

Robert Hardie, the former head of digital at Northcliffe, recently did some analysis on the transfer stories published in national newspapers:

In most regional newspapers, a 5% success rate would be a disaster. We know we’re (generally) the only people to have writers covering one club day in and day out, but do our readers. Do we shout about it enough?

Readers stop reading regional newspapers for many reasons. The assumption is often that the content in the paper is wrong. Sometimes it is. But I can’t help but think that there’s more to it than that. It’s not the content – it’s the communication. Social media can play a part here, but just getting people talking about the paper again can be crucial.

Many papers now run supplements of School Proms pictures. Seeing your picture in print still retains a kudos. Promoted correctly, it surely becomes a sampling exercise for those who’ve forgotten about the paper. Data-driven stories can do the same, providing information people simply can’t get anywhere else without having to do the work themselves. A list of every none-star rated restaurant, takeaway and cafe? Very handy. Providing details of an area’s most popular schools? Invaluable for a parent. But they need to know about it to buy it.

To that end, the biggest  problem isn’t that people don’t trust regional newspapers, it’s often that they’ve simply fallen out of a habit. We can, and need to, show them that we’re a habit that isn’t worth kicking.

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