Every week now another piece falls into place. The decline of the newspaper business as anything that anyone would want to progressively invest in is now turning into a rout. Like B2B magazine publishing, the question now is not what does the future hold, but how do we clear up the junk afterwards. These gloomy thoughts are prompted not just by Trinity Mirror’s catastrophic results this week, in which the half year to end July saw pre-tax profits decline from £84.8m last year to £28.9m this year, on revenue down from £382.2m to £371m. Or by the reaction of the markets: shares jumped 18% on rumours that the company was organizing a further share buyback, thus sacrificing its balance sheet on the altar of market valuation. And I am not further comforted by the fact that the Sunday Mirror gained from the disappearance of the News of the World, a situation which is purely temporary now that the Sun on Sunday has entered the market. Or by the announcement that the group internal investigation clears Piers Morgan and his colleagues from charges of phone hacking; this story has two years to run, and there seems to be no last shoe dropping/fat lady singing syndrome in sight yet. You could wallpaper the bathroom using denials and announcements from News Corp on internal investigations that show no wrong doing, and the same may yet be true of Trinity Mirror.

No, the piece that got to me was a report by that doyen of Fleet Street rectitude, Roy Greenslade, in his Guardian blog. He quotes David Lis, at Aviva Investors, as saying in the Sunday Times that “Its imperative that there is consolidation within the regional newspaper space. It simply has to happen.” We must listen to Mr Lis with respect: his company apparently own 10% of Trinity Mirror, whose shares have fallen two-thirds in value this year, prior to that buy back rumour. One wonders what his position is on the buyback, or indeed on the dividend (axed two years ago and unlikely to return), or the advertising trend at Trinity Mirror (down 11.1% on the half year) And he wants to buy more of that? Nothing braver has been said in any walk of life since Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich promising “Peace in our Time”!

Is it not yet apparent that the managers of the major regional press interests have done everything that capable and reasonable men can to save the ship? We have now had a decade of staff cutting, regional print centres to raise productivity and reduce costs, regional editorial services producing look-alike products in the towns and cities of Britain, and exodus from locality to create a minimum service level on the narrowest editorial presence, churning out doctored agency text designed to keep the ads apart on the page – until all of a sudden there were no ads. And the flight to the web, in the jealous editorial hands of the existing print papers, proved to be a real failure either to create something new and local or to extend the hallowed brands of the print world into web presence. Having once almost succeeded and then failed to persuade Trinity to buy Thomson Directories, and having seen them developing directories in Scotland in more recent years, I hoped that a penny had dropped, and that they were about to embark on a complete local advertising strategy online, something we often anxiously talked about years ago when Fish4 was being created with their support. But, no. Courage and convictios fell at the final hurdle.

So why, Mr Lis, are you persuaded that putting together one cost-pared declining business with another with the same problems makes any sense at all? There are few more cost savings to make. Advertisers will seek greater discounts across more newsprint. There are no competitive positions to close out – these papers are all local monopolies anyway. The trick that your company needs to perform is to invent the equivalent service values of the once popular local press in an online and mobile context. You need to do it, despite the disadvantage of starting in print, with these factors in mind:

1. The newspaper was always a partnership with the community – but newspapermen forgot that.

2. You cannot press a format onto a geography and call it a community.

3. Format is created by need and formalized by experience. Formats that outgrow needs have to be re-invented, bottom up.

So can you recreate the newspaper? No, but you can certainly create answers in digital media for issues of local and hyper-local communication, trade and exchange. Will they look like newspaper websites? Not at all – news is only important when other needs, which may include targeted news, are satisfied. Can you create environments that link whole communities? Of course, given time, but in some places it will be the schools, in others local businesses, in some sports, in others issues outcry (like high speed trains in Bucks) that will create the initial focus. Once the flame is going, feed it with tools and apps, manage it for the community and monetize it through eCommerce and sponsorship. And make it mobile from the first instance.

Meanwhile, readers of my letter to the CEO of Guardian Media Group will have recognized what is happening there. Apax and GMG declared a “special dividend” for EMAP, taking out a £100m benefit from a debt restructuring deal, presumably so that GMG can plug the hole in its finances arising from this years’ losses. They will not need reminding that even family silver can run out, and plugging losses does not secure a sustainable future.


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