Turning Around the Tanker: Implementing Trinity Mirror's Online Strategy
The UK local and regional newspaper industry presents a paradox. On the one hand:
- Profit margins are very high: almost 19% at Trinity Mirror, and 38.2% at the Western Mail and Echo in 2005
- Newspaper advertising revenues are extremely high: £3 billion in 2005, newspapers are the second largest advertising medium in the UK
But on the other hand:
- Circulations have been declining steeply: 38% drop at Cardiff's Western Mail since 1993, more than half its readers lost since 1979
- Companies have implemented harsh staffing cuts: 20% cut in editorial and production staff at Trinity Mirror, and 31% at Western Mail and Echo since 1999
- Journalists' workloads are incredibly heavy while pay has remained low: 84% of staff at Western Mail and Echo think their workload has increased, and the starting wage for a trainee journalist is only £11,113
- Reporters rely much more on pre-packaged sources of news like agencies and PR: 92% of survey respondents claimed they now use more PR copy in stories than previously, 80% said they use the wires more often
Companies like Trinity Mirror will not be able to sustain high profits based on advertising revenues because of growing competition from the internet. Their policy to move operations online requires journalists to become "cross-platform content providers" using video cameras and recording podcasts as well as writing stories for print edition newspapers. This will generate additional work although they refuse to hire more editorial staff. Management know they will encounter resistance to the move from employees, but are bullish about pushing through the changes.
Journalists in Trinity's regional newsrooms are very concerned about the changes in their working conditions that digital journalism will bring, but they do believe the internet represents the future of journalism:
- 86% of staff at the Cardiff newsroom believe the future of the local and regional press involves online news and multiplatform journalism
But they have genuine concerns about how the policy will be implemented.
- 96% believe that more staff should be hired to cover the extra work created by additional online demands, but 88% do not believe the company will hire any more journalists to cover the extra work.
Reporters have identified five key areas of concern, and worry:
- there will be little investment in extra resources
- their workloads will increase with the introduction of web-first editorial policies and video journalism
- the quality of multimedia news will be poor and that this will reflect badly on established print products
- training will be insufficient
- they won't get any additional pay for their new responsibilities
Experiences of journalists at Trinity Mirror's pilot "digital newsrooms" confirm that all of the concerns held by Western Mail and Echo employees were well founded. Key findings from Trinity newsrooms in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, and Liverpool include:
- Producing internet video news is very resource intensive, and creates significant extra work for both video journalists and their colleagues
- Regional newspaper editors are reluctant to fully implement the multimedia strategy because of tight resources
- The quality of original video content is poor, and journalists are relying heavily on pre-packaged sources of video such as the police, PR firms, and even clip sites like You Tube
- Web-first editorial policies result in increased workloads for journalists and sub-editors
- Employees in the Merseyside newsroom have initiated industrial action over the increased workload created by the multimedia strategy and won significant concessions from management over working hours and pay
Trinity Mirror faces a stark choice as it moves online. It can continue to make cuts with an eye on maintaining short-term profit margins and watch the quality of its news decline over time, or it can "invest in journalism" with the aim of producing quality print and digital news products with a view to creating sustainable long-term profits. In the words of one senior academic expert:
"I think people are less concerned about whether the stories on the website are in audio, video, or text, provided there are good stories there. If you keep cutting, you get profits, but after a while you'll pay for it."
A recent issue of the Economist devoted to the "Future of Newspapers" sounded the death knell for contemporary newspapers describing them as an "endangered species" (Economist August 24th 2006). Such gloomy prognoses are increasingly commonplace. American academic Philip Meyer, for example, in his book The Vanishing Newspaper, observed with enviable if dubious precision that "by my calculations, the last reader will disappear in September 2043". Some pundits offer more precocious valedictories for local and regional newspapers (Crosbie 2004).
The usual suspects are presented as culpable for newspapers' impending demise. Declining titles and circulations, advertising revenues colonised by online predators such as the classified advertising website Craigslist and Ebay, along with the availability of news on diverse and more readily accessible delivery platforms such as the internet, mobile telephony and podcasts; we live, so the claim runs, at a time when news is freely available and all around us; an age of "ambient news" (Hargreaves 2003).
A number of remedies are routinely offered to fend off, for as long as possible, the fateful day when "the last reader" along with their newspaper will inevitably "vanish". Companies must cut costs, spend less on journalism, shift their editorial priorities away from hard news and politics towards lifestyle journalism, human interest stories and a greater focus on entertainment. In truth this smacks of the much favoured "minimax" strategy according to which managements seek to minimise costs while maximising revenues. But the conventional wisdom also advises that regional newspaper companies must seek an accommodation with the web, discover ways to gather and report news for presentation on multiple (print and online) platforms, in ways which will be mutually supportive and synergetic of companies' financial and journalistic ambitions.
Regional newspaper companies are currently developing and implementing multimedia and online strategies to achieve these objectives. Trinity Mirror claims that:
to survive and thrive we need to respond swiftly to the emerging trends, both commercially and in terms of the journalism we produce. From the editorial viewpoint, that means reinventing ourselves as a multimedia content provider... by turning our print newsrooms into genuine multimedia hubs with our journalists producing content for a range of media. Our traditional media will continue to be vitally important, but video reports for publication on our websites, radio style podcasts and content directed at mobile phone users will become increasingly important elements in the content mix. (Western Mail and Echo Ltd 17th November 2006).
High quality journalism, but reported on multiple platforms, remains the central ambition, but there must also be a change of journalistic style or, perhaps better, a change of journalistic tone. As Michael Hill, Head of Multimedia at Trinity Mirror expressed it, "journalists must leave the ivory tower and cease viewing journalism as a message handed down on a tablet of stone. They must join the conversation being conducted by bloggers, citizen journalists and readers on the websites and comment posts" (Hill 2007). Sly Bailey hit a more relaxed note in a speech to Cardiff Business Club. She presented difficulties with loss of readers and advertising as a temporary blip and implementation of the Trinity Mirror multimedia strategy as an incremental and continuing development (Bailey 2007). She acknowledged that,
the internet represents an enormous challenge to our business models, as we face the twin threats of consumers accessing the web for news and entertainment [...] and advertisers following the eyeballs, but I would argue that the immediate impact of this trend on advertising revenues has been somewhat overstated [...] we expect the cycle to move back into more positive territory. So at Trinity Mirror for some years now, quietly without fuss or fanfare, we have been moving towards our goal of becoming a true multi-platform publisher delivering content and advertising across a range of different media, whenever, and in whatever form our customers a demand (Bailey 2007).
Other senior managers articulate the need for prompt and radical change arguing that the need to reassign journalists from print to the production of video materials for use on company websites, for example, is vital. Speaking at a recent conference on "Online Journalism, Citizen Journalism and Blogging" at the University of Central England (January 26th 2007), Michael Hill (Regional Head of Multimedia at Trinity Mirror), acknowledged that some journalists were sceptical and concerned that the new strategy might divert resources from the core print product and asked "Why kill the goose that has laid the golden egg?" Hill's response is "The goose has got bird flu" (Bradshaw 2007). Hill is currently engaged is a series of "Back to Basics" presentations with groups of workers in Trinity Mirror although he acknowledges the process is somewhat akin "to turning round an oil tanker" and the "some staff will never get it... but they will do what they are told to do" (Bradshaw 2007).
The broad objective of this research is to assess the Trinity Mirror Group's proposed online strategy for regional and local newspapers in Wales. The research reported here includes (1) an extensive review of appropriate industry, professional and scholarly literatures to provide a background and context for the specific study of the strategy at Trinity Mirror; (2) an archival search examining company records to establish changes in levels of staffing, profitability, revenues, costs and other variables across two decades; (3) responses to a questionnaire distributed to key editorial personnel in Trinity Mirror Wales to collect and present the judgements of journalists, editors, managers and other production workers within the Group towards the proposed strategy and; (4) a series of semi-structured interviews conducted with relevant newspaper staffs, trades unionists and senior academics beyond Trinity Mirror Wales, as well as journalists and editorial staff within the Group. The research also canvasses and reports assessments of an alternative strategy stressing a greater investment in journalistic staffs and resources to buttress editorial content in newspapers (see Appendix A for further details on our methodology).
The report is structured into nine distinctive sections offering:
- An overview of the provincial press industry in the UK
- An outline analysis of the Trinity Mirror Group
- An overview of the Trinity Mirror Group in Wales
- A presentation and assessment of Trinity Mirror's online strategies since 2000
- An assessment of recent developments in UK regional and local online journalism (2006-7), with case studies of Johnston Press and the Lancashire Evening Post
- An outline of Trinity Mirror Online Strategy (2006-7)
- Consideration of staff responses to the proposed multimedia strategy at Western Mail and Echo
- Assessments of the success of Trinity Mirror's pilot digital newsrooms in Merseyside, Newcastle and Middlesbrough
- An assessment of the move to multimedia local and regional news provision in the UK, and a consideration of the "investing in journalism" strategy.