John McLellan: Appetite remains for print-based news

When the Oldham Evening Chronicle collapsed two weeks ago, I wrote here it was hard to believe a town of 230,000 people could not sustain a strong weekly publication. It seems I was not alone.

'There is still an appetite for, and potential in, print-based news publishing,' writes John McLellan. Picture: Greg Macvean
'There is still an appetite for, and potential in, print-based news publishing,' writes John McLellan. Picture: Greg Macvean

Last week Newsquest, the UK subsidiary of American news giant Gannet and publishers of Glasgow’s Herald and the Dunfermline Free Press amongst many others, announced immediate plans to launch a new weekly, the Oldham Times.

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But no sooner had the plan been unveiled when the Oldham-based local radio station, Revolution 96.2, announced it was in “advanced talks” with administrators KPMG to buy the Chronicle.

Newsquest, headed by Henry Faure-Walker who cut his newspaper teeth in Edinburgh as assistant to Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler and then as general manager of The Scotsman Publications, has advantages of scale, as his firm publishes the Bolton News and Blackburn Telegraph.

The new weekly is out this Thursday, produced by four newly-recruited journalists and edited by Bolton News chief Ian Savage, compared to the 49 people laid off when the Chronicle folded. With a tenth of the staff costs, a fifth of the distribution and production costs and no pension liability, the business model could not be more different from that of the collapsed outfit.

It’s unlikely the radio station would want to saddle itself with the cost of continuing daily publication, and even in such a short space of time, the Chronicle’s 6,000 or so readers will have broken the daily habit. A weekly would make more sense and if Revolution goes ahead with the acquisition of the brand, Oldham could witness a short circulation battle.

Even with such a big population, the loss of the classified platforms and competition for remaining advertising from social media means two competing paid-for titles would not be sustainable for long. Having stolen a march, Newsquest is in the driving seat, even if its rival has the advantage of free radio marketing.

Trinity Mirror could have made a similar move from its Manchester base but is focussed on its takeover bid for the Daily Express and Richard Desmond’s other publishing interests, revealed shortly after the Chronicle announcement. A new national group of three dailies in different parts of the political, geographic and demographic market in the Daily Record, Daily Mirror and Daily Express, is workable, but a Sunday stable of the Mail, Mirror, People, Star and Express would surely result in amalgamations.

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Whoever ends up publishing what, locally or nationally there is still an appetite for, and potential in, print–based news publishing.

• John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a City of Edinburgh Conservative councillor