Why the Birmingham Post must change
I have just announced to my staff that Trinity Mirror was starting a consultation process with them over the future of the Birmingham Post, the title I have edited for more than three years.
There are two options for change on the table - each a response to the fact that the Midlands region of Trinity Mirror will lose ÃÂ£6 million next year unless some radical action is taken now. The Post as a key title must play its part in plugging that profit gap, and I'll get to the two options later.
This consultation process is unique in my experience in that as well as seeking the views of staff - who are of course the people most directly affected by any changes - we also want the views of readers and advertisers. Launches and relaunches of newspapers always involve market research and testing, of course, but rarely do publishers open up the decision making process as early - and as transparently - as we are doing with the Post.
I think that's a mark of the special role the Post plays in the life of the Midlands. No other region in the UK has a daily paper that gives as much quality coverage to business, politics and the arts as does the Post. In its own little way, the title is one of the many unique attributes of the West Midlands, and one that is highly prized as a result.
Readers have an almost fanatical allegiance to the Post, and any changes are met with the kind of reaction that I've rarely seen in any of the newspapers I've worked for over more than 20 years. It's because of this fierce sense of ownership that I think it's absolutely the right thing to do to give the whole region a say in what could be the most important decision for the Post in its 151-year history.
Here, I want to set out why we need to change and describe what we think are the best options, so you can respond with your views and help us make the right decision.
But first, what's the problem and why to we need a big change? Behind the stark financial picture I painted earlier lies a complex set of changing circumstances that makes the current recession particularly painful for any business in the media - and especially so for the regional press. What's more, when the UK emerges from the financial downturn, by no means all of our old sources of revenue will return to 'normal'. We make most of our money from advertising, which is fuelled by the marketing budgets of other businesses. When recession bites, these are the first lines to be cut, and we've seen serious and sustained declines, particularly job and property advertising. In the Post's case, the catastrophic hits sustained by the financial and the commercial property markets have been reflected directly in the amount of advertising we see from these sectors. Given their significance for the Post, this has been a very painful change indeed.
At the same time, however, the very structure of the advertising market has fundamentally changed, with total advertising on the internet overtaking the regional press for the first time this year. While the Post's very successful online service is lauded as one of the best in the regional press, it's competing for audience attention and advertising pounds with everyone from the BBC, Telegraph Online and Google to local blogs, Ebay and niche business sites. Just a few years ago, our competition consisted of nearby rival newspapers and a few radio stations. Now we compete with the world. We're gaining a lot of online advertising, but not at a rate to replace our declining print advertising.
Last year's radical change - we switched from a broadsheet to a compact format, and scrapped the Saturday edition - was a response to that challenge, but such is the depth of the recession, one that wasn't radical enough to ensure the survival of this great title.
So what could a new Birmingham Post look like , one to weather the recession and emerge equipped to thrive in the new media world?
The facts: our biggest expenses are staff and manufacturing costs. Any change that doesn't reduce either or both of these areas simply won't plug the profit gap, so our approach is to look at reducing the overall number of pages printed per week. With each page lost, you reduce the absolute cost of the ink and paper - and also the work that goes into producing the content, and hence the labour cost. We've therefore looked at reducing the size of the paper on an average day, or reducing the number of days per week on which we publish. The somewhat zanier ideas that we rejected early on included total closure, a merger with the Birmingham Mail, or even going bi-weekly.
We're now left with two options, each of which result in broadly the same improvement of the profit position of the Post, but are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
In the first option, the daily pagination of the Post would be reduced to just 40 or 48 pages per day, including Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, when we currently regularly exceed 60 pages. Because of the need for savings, many of those pages will need to rely more on contributed content and national stories from agencies than is currently the case, and the local flavour will therefore be diluted.
The second option is to move to a weekly model - probably publishing on Thursdays - with a much bigger edition of around 96 pages at its core, plus commercial supplements and sections such as Post Property and Living magazine.
The first option retains more editorial jobs than the weekly model, but will result in my view in a much weakened brand because the paper will represent less value for money for the reader, day-by-day.
The weekly model will provide a much more comprehensive package of information, entertainment and advertising, and I believe will do more to preserve the brand values of the Post, and therefore offer a more sustainable future for the title. We think we will be able to retain most of the essential elements that exist in the current model and incorporate them in a weekly Post.
For the weekly model, we are even forecasting a modest circulation increase, based on the recent experiences of daily papers that have gone weekly.
Cards on the table? I believe the weekly model is the best option for the Post. There's a lot of emotion connected to the supposed status of being a daily paper and many of my contacts in the city regularly state baldly to me that 'Birmingham simply must have a daily business paper'. But at what cost? Increasingly, our diet of daily and immediate news is fed by online services and broadcast media, and newspapers have a much reduced role in bringing news we didn't hear first somewhere else. Papers are increasingly more about providing analysis, comment and insight.
I believe that should be the role of the Post in print - to explain and examine the big decisions and issues in the region, while keeping readers up to date with the immediate through our website and other online services.
A substantial, value-for-money weekly package is surely the best home for this, where the very best elements of the Post's coverage can be found all in one place.
That's my view anyway. There will be many others that take a very different position, I'm sure, and I genuinely want to hear as many views on this as possible.