A former regional newspaper editor has come up with a 10-point plan to help cure the crisis in the regional press - which includes a call for debt relief for big PLC publishers like Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror.
Neil Fowler, Guardian Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, outlined his plan in a lecture in which he warned that Johnston, Trinity and Newsquest-owner Gannett were "having to pull as much cash as possible out of their businesses to service these debts - which in turn is causing those businesses long term damage."
Fowler, a former editor of the Western Mail, Newcastle Journal, Derby Evening Telegraph and Lincolnshire Echo, said that during the "golden years" of high profits between 1989 and 2005 the regional press failed to invest in research on the future and in its customers.
He also claimed: "Giving all a newspaper's output away for free on the web has been a disaster. The message that the internet would be the new rivers of gold was always false."
Fowler outlined 10 recommendations for the regional press:
- The government through culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and business secretary Vince Cable must show they understand that there is a crisis in funding of general news in this country - specifically for regional dailies as well as the quality end of the national market and that this is the real media issue of our times.
- Consolidation and title swapping should be made easier, especially geographically.
- The industry should press this case as soon as possible - and the government should make the right signals.
- The industry should continue the bold moves instigated by Northcliffe in turning some of its dailies to weekly production.
- Readership, rather than sales and impressions should become the new currency to sell to advertisers.
- Moves should be made to help the three PLCs - Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror in this country - and Gannett [parent company of Newsquest] in the US - to have, in the words of the moment, an orderly default on their debts.
- The government should include the recommendations of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on the potential of charitable and trust ownership of newspapers in its forthcoming Communications Green Paper.
- University media schools should move from their pre-occupations with the study of journalism to include much more of the study of the business of journalism. They should work with their sibling business schools to help the industry find real solutions to its woes.
- Start charging for some content online. Ditch fancy website names and use your newspaper brands. The industry still has time to experiment, to try new models and be brave. There remains a demand for local and regional news and no one else can provide it with the same level of expertise and independence than the existing news businesses.
- Everyone in the regional newspaper industry should have an intelligent and realistic debate about the real state of the business and how it got there.
Pic: Neil Fowler speaking in Oxford last night ( Jon Slattery).