In 1992 The Journal newspaper in Newcastle upon Tyne switched from broadsheet to tabloid. Twenty-five years later, NEIL FOWLER, the editor who led ‘the last great regional newspaper relaunch in the UK” (and who joins VoiceoftheNorth as its newest recruit) considers its impact and questions that it could ever be repeated in print or digitally.
Extracted from the March/April edition of InPublishing,which has itself been ‘refreshed’ by editor James Evelegh (click here to visit)
I WAS fortunate enough to be editor of The Journal when [after 159 years a north-east morning broadsheet] it was launched as a tabloid. Little did that talented editorial team know at the time that some three-and-a-half years later, the owner, Thomson Corporation, would make what turned out to be one of the most prescient exits in business history by selling its UK regional arm, Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN), and with it The Journal, to Trinity [now Trinity Mirror]. How did it know what was going to happen to the news business?
But at this time, TRN was riding high. And The Journal change was a prime example of the big thinking that had epitomised the group since [the Canadian] Roy Thomson had moved into UK newspapers in the 1950s.
Thomson was careful with money but once it believed in a project it would not stint from providing significant resources. Hence the attempt at ringing London with new evenings in the 1960s and 1970s; and hence in the 1980s, the founding of Sunday papers for three of the UK’s nations: Scotland on Sunday, Wales on Sunday and Sunday Life in Northern Ireland. These were serious ventures, involving weighty expenditure.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight is far too easy, but it is no exaggeration now to class the TRN policies and achievements of those years as coming from very much a golden age.
TRN invested heavily in both journalism and commercial skills. Two innovative training centres were established in Cardiff and Newcastle and, in the 1990s, the heads of many of the major regional groups all bore the description ‘Thomson-trained’ in their CVs.
In early 1991, TRN appointed a new editorial director, Stuart Garner, [whose plan it was] to add to the group’s historical successes the conversion of The Journal from broadsheet to tabloid. Stuart recruited some of the best thinkers in newspapers from the US and elsewhere to help TRN take his great leap forward putting them alongside the Newcastle team as we planned the conversion.
The result was a 12 per cent hike in sales across the following year, a great success. And the growth was to continue into year two, albeit at a much lower rate.
But what does this exercise in nostalgia mean in today’s changed world? Did a high-profile relaunch of this kind ever achieve anything of lasting importance? Or did it just put off the day of judgement?
On this occasion, the Journal relaunch secured the paper as a viable product for the years ahead and gave it a long-term positioning. Following the changes, the Newcastle centre then possessed three confident main titles with The Journal and the Chronicle being complemented by the ballsy Sunday Sun, also successfully relaunched the previous year. And 25 years on, despite the ravages of the digital revolution, it is still very recognisable as the same newspaper.
As a result, a new generation of editors was recruited by all the major groups; many broadsheets went tabloid. And many other relaunches (or refreshes) took place in the regional press after The Journal, some with great results. But few solidified the weight of a whole group as that one had.
However, few really successful newspapers and magazines appear to go in for public relaunches of this kind. I am old enough to have been a boy delivering the [broadsheet] Daily Mail at the time of its last relaunch 46 years ago, when it merged with the tabloid Daily Sketch to emerge in its current compact form under current editor Paul Dacre’s predecessor David English – which says a great deal.
[When it comes to large-scale changes]I suspect The Sun never knowingly told its readers they were getting something better than they had enjoyed before, rather that they were getting something brilliant the whole time. Many confident magazines do the same. They improve and change over time but are always careful not to denigrate what their readers had always enjoyed.
So, does the relaunch have a place today? In the past, it was a way of bringing focus to the team effort and indicating that the editor was acnually doing something. But has that altered with the needs of websites, mobile services and radically changed advertiser activity? Relaunching websites is a different game; prepared behind the scenes, they simply appear on the reader’s screen whether they are wanted or not.
The kind of relaunch in which I took part is now a thing of the past. Today’s editors understand more that print and digital products have to improve and change organically, so that readers feel subconsciously that they were and are always getting a gold deal.
Having said that, I’m sure editors of that era would agree that relaunches were bloody good fun and brought renewed energy to their products.
And for that alone they were invaluable.