Monday 1 September 2014

Read all about it while you still can


Thanks to the ever-alert Caebrwyn who has provided a link to a story on the extraordinary cat fight going on between the Pembrokeshire Herald and the Western Telegraph. 

The old established press titles will be aghast at this very public airing of dirty linen. The Herald has certainly got balls.


I grew up in a small village (population around 300 back then), and my first paid job was as a newspaper boy starting at £1.50 a week. A van would turn up every morning at about 6 o'clock, and I had to sort the bundle it dropped off before setting out on my bike for the morning round.

Nearly every house took a newspaper. A couple of the posh addresses took The Times, and I think there was one Guardian reader. Probably Russian spies.

The dailies were joined by a scattering of weekly magazines. Nothing very exciting: Woman's Weekly, Woman's Realm, Farmers Weekly, People's Friend and one historical curiosity called Red Letter which featured romantic fiction for old ladies as opposed to Marxist-Leninist dialectics.

Quite a few of the houses also took a local paper once a week, and most but not all took a Sunday newspaper.

Roll forward 40 years, and newspaper boys and girls are a dying breed. I suspect that the large shoulder bag I used to carry, blackened and shiny with newsprint, would be a great deal lighter now.

This stroll down memory lane was prompted by a report over on Wales Eye covering the latest disastrous sales figures for the Western Mail, Daily Post and South Wales Echo, among others. As the blog points out, if the slide continues none of these titles is likely to be around in five years from now, at least not as dailies.

But what about the smaller local weekly titles in this part of Wales?

Here are the latest ABC figures for average sales in 2013:

Carmarthen Journal      13,713    -4.7%
Llanelli Star                  11,070    -9%
Tivyside Advertiser         6,075    -4.7%
South Wales Guardian    5,236    -3.7%
Western Telegraph        15,753   -13.8%

Not available are the 2013 figures for the Cambrian News, but the BBC reported that it had a circulation of 24,800 in 2006, and that was down to 19,800 by the end of 2011. The figures will be somewhat lower by now.

The dramatic decline in the readership of the Western Telegraph is probably largely explained by the arrival on the scene of the Pembrokeshire Herald which launched in mid-2013. Audited sales figures for the second half of 2013 do not appear to be available, but it sold 21,000 copies on launch. Average sales will be rather lower than that, but it seems certain that the bulk of its sales are coming from people who were not previously buying a local paper or who had given up on the established titles.

In other words, the Herald showed that extinction of the local press is not inevitable.

Compared with its long-established rivals, the Herald is a barely house-trained upstart. It is irreverent, daring at times and has pulled off a whole series of blinding scoops. The image of Bryn Parry-Jones angrily waving a copy of the Herald at a dawn meeting in the bunker is surely advertising gold.

Here is a list of its ten most popular recent stories, according to its website:

Observant readers may have spotted that 9 out of 10 are about the County Council, and Bryn is, probably for the first and only time in his career, top of the pops with no fewer than 7 chart entries.

Whether the Herald will find life quite as easy when Bryn Parry-Jones heads off into a gold-plated retirement only time will tell, but for the moment he is the gift that keeps on giving.

So while some of our other local papers have been going through relaunches, radical overhauls of their layout, introduced "crisp" and interactive new websites or become politics-free zones, the Herald has done something which is likely to be far more valuable in the long-run: it has developed a distinct character.

If the other local titles ever get round to holding a focus group with a branding consultant, one exercise they might want to try is asking the public to draw pictures of what their newspaper would look like if it was a person. Maiden aunt? Middle-aged man with slight paunch watching sport on the telly? Mum dressing up in teenage clothes and rocking to Justin Bieber?

And equally interesting, what do the newspapers think their readers look like?

Amazingly we got through this without mentioning the 'Carmarthenshire News' and the way it continues to undermine our local newspapers.


Redhead said...

Unfortunately, most "local" newspapers are owned by large companies with many titles. These companies have owners or directors who choose a political colour (or no colour at all) and stick with it. Also, being highly dependent for advertising on political and national advertising (e g council re ruitment and public noticed and large supermarket ads) they edit their stories accordingly.

This leads either to totally partisan reporting where a political party can do no wrong or stories of the kind such as "sweet old lady's cute cat rescued from lowest branch on a small tree by our wonderful rescue service". Add to this the recycling of council press releases (word for word) as "news" and the fearlessness of bloggers in reporting the real issues and you can see why circulation is falling.

But, like the big supermarkets, they are taking their time workiing out why the ship is sinking - blaming it on anything except the reality that the captain has holed it on rocks.

caebrwyn said...

The WT looks rattled enough to threaten the Herald over its figures;
The comments reveal what most people want from a local newspaper.
Seems like there's a growing gap in the market over here and plenty of room for a Carmarthenshire Herald...

Jac o' the North, said...

I agree that too many 'local' newspapers are no longer local, many are not even newspapers.

You mentioned the Cambrian News which, due to the large area covered, can still claim to be Wales' biggest-selling weekly. This masks the truth of what it has become.

My Meirionnydd edition of the CN seems to rely entirely on readers approaching the paper. And human nature being what it is, these 'stories' are overwhelmingly complaints about this and that - litter on the beach, Tywyn being ignored by county HQ in Caernarfon, buses not turning up, etc. Trivia supplemented by court cases, press releases, photos from local carnivals and galas, classifieds, and local sport. Bingo! you got yourself a local newspaper.

There is no journalism involved. Which explains why the CN could recently appoint a 21-year-old from Yorkshire as its 'Meirionnydd correspondent'.

Yes, despite the lack of journalism, there is still political bias evident, as you point out with the example of Pembrokeshire. Here in Gwynedd, with a Plaid Cymru-run council, allowing readers to moan about local services week in week out gives the Cambrian News a cheap and indirect way of attacking that council.