Monday, September 12, 2011

Exeter's newspaper: neither Express nor Echo?

Back in the early 18th century, Exeter was one of the earliest English cities outside London to have a weekly newspaper [1]. Exeter's popular local daily paper - the Express and Echo - has been going since 1904. Now in 2011, the Echo has just gone weekly. What's the story?

Over the years, I've bought the Echo only intermittently. I like to support local journalism. After all, who else would spend the weeks and months (sometimes even years) needed to scrutinise local developments and ferret out hidden scandals?

However, as with many local papers, much of the time there's not much to report; and adverts, trivia and worthy campaigns are the main content. Recently, tedious parking stories have been trying the patience of readers. The Echo's journalists do their best. But often there's not enough in the paper to interest me.

Times are particularly hard for local newspapers at the moment. Advertising revenue is down; and people are preferring to get their news instantaneously and free from the web, rather than a day late from a local rag that costs money.

It's in this context that the Echo has just gone weekly (also see the comments on this announcement at HoldTheFrontPage and thisisexeter).

What does this mean for Exeter's newspaper?

A brief history of the Express and Echo

The publisher, Northcliffe Media, is owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust, but mostly does not follow The Fail's blatant biases and obsessions.

The Echo tends to go for human interest, but that's popular journalism. It tends to favour the sitting MP (Labour's Ben Bradshaw), but he's a nice chap and a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, so that's understandable. And the Echo tends to bash the city and county councils, but again that's understandable, since it's a key part of the paper's role to hold these councils to account.

The editor, Marc Astley has been with Northcliffe for 20 years, and has edited the Echo since 2007 [2]. He was previously deputy editor of the Nottingham Post and assistant editor at the Hull Daily Mail [3].

The Echo most recently cost 36p, and its circulation was around 17,000 a day [4]: not bad for a city of only 120,000 people.

What is the new weekly Echo like?

At first glance it looks like the old daily edition, but bulkier. It costs £1 and promises "20 pages of local sport. Plus 88 pages of property. And the latest job vacancies." Curiously, the word "Exeter" does not appear on the front page, except in the tiny url. But this seems to be a tradition [5].

It has some big stories this week (well, "big" for local news), including...

  • a front-page exclusive on highly confidential police information left in a car sold at auction;
  • plans for a new site for the Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education (a long-standing contentious issue);
  • the deferral of plans for a £19m research centre at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital;
  • a proposed expansion of Exeter International Airport;
  • multi-million pound plans for a training facility for successful local rugby team the Exeter Chiefs;
  • and the news that there are more "increasing risk" drinkers in Exeter than anywhere else in the country.
These stories and more are covered in some 46 tabloid-size news and features pages. On average about half of each page is taken up with advertising, in addition to the 18 full-page advertisements. The writing style seems quite flat. Neither especially sensationalist nor particularly formal.

Other familiar sections for local papers are present:
  • Property (88 pages, as a separate pull-out section)
  • Sport (20 pages)
  • What's On (11 pages)
  • Classifieds (7 pages)
  • Letters and opinion (6 pages)
  • Cars (5 pages)
  • Jobs (4 pages)
  • Announcements (2 pages)
  • Puzzles (1 page)

Do we need a printed Echo?

According to the excellent Exeter Memories website, James Owen launched the Echo in 1904 with the words:
"We claim to do no more than to give our friends news served up in the brightest, crispest manner we know how. Performance being at all times preferable to promise, we will not trouble our readers with protestations. Here is the paper and we must be judged by it."
The first issue leads with a report on the Russian-Japanese war, and follows up with the story of a cyclist decapitated in an accident.

But in 2011, Catherine Fraser, features writer for the paper, notes (p. 21):
"A few people have wondered whether a regional newspaper is relevant in this world of instant information, local and national, on the radio, television and internet, either through traditional routes or, increasingly, mobile phones, and have suggested that we just shut the presses down forever."
Nevertheless, she makes...
"... no apologies for the same agenda of bringing you all the local news, battling bureaucracy, running campaigns and taking pride in our place in the city. ... there is no question that a local newspaper still plays a very important role in its community - and beyond."
She cites as an example the story of a local woman with breast cancer, a story which led to significant donations and fundraising events, and then became a national story.

Almost all the stories, with the front-page exclusive a clearly deliberate exception, became available on the thisisexeter website in the days leading up to publication day. The larger stories were available from online sources, particularly the BBC, although not typically as readily as from the Echo. The old knotty question remains as to whether the Echo's website (a free, generic and badly-designed Northcliffe construction based on automated feeds) is undermining print sales, and whether that matters given the income from online advertising.

In relation to news, The Echo is also competing with BBC News online, the BBC television programme Spotlight (and related shows from the South West studios), and ITV Westcountry News. These services have shrunk in recent years, with the economic downturn: they cover larger geographical areas than previously, have less resource, and lack some of the content they once had. But they are still formidable competitors. Radio, too, offers potentially more immediate and dynamic news than the printed page. Exeter FM, Heart and BBC Radio Devon seem to be surviving for now.

What about advertising?
If the value of printed news is under question, how much more this must be true of other sections. Perhaps I underestimate the proportion of people who prefer to shop for houses or cars through printed newspapers rather than through the Web. But why would one choose to pore over pages and pages of houses or cars most of which don't fit my needs than use the user-friendly and powerful web-based search engines that show me far greater detail, tailored to my particular requirements?

88 pages of property is a huge amount, in straitened times, so clearly estate agents believe that they make enough sales via such ads to justify the cost. Moreover, is heavily promoted at the start of the property section, so it is clear that these printed pages still happily co-exist with online house-buying tools.

On the other hand, at just 5 pages, the motoring section is a pale shadow of past years. So either far fewer people are buying and selling cars than previously, or the convenience of being to locate a car online is winning out. Maybe something similar is true in relation to jobs. And it's clear that classified advertising is also potentially threatened by internet-based initiatives such as eBay and Freecycle.

Isn't the paper a focus for citywide debate?

In the time before websites, Twitter and Facebook, local newspapers served hugely important civic functions of galvanising and hosting public debate in favour of reform [6].

These days, the Echo's leader column and opinion pieces are largely anodyne; while the letters pages are dominated by the largely lowbrow scribblings of a small number of slightly bewildered eccentrics.

Yet the newspaper can still serve as a focus that can easily be lost in the cacophony of digital channels and online sites. You still frequently hear "Did you see that article in the Echo about...?" Twitter has an Exeter community, but its core is tiny in comparison with the Echo's circulation. And even a medium renowned for being tomorrow's chip wrapping is far less ephemeral than the rapidly-changing Twitter, at least for now, when it comes to its impact on citywide debate.

What's the future for Exeter's newspaper?

It could be argued that Exeter's printer newspaper is neither express nor echo. Firstly, it lacks the "express" immediacy of the TV, the radio, and the internet. And secondly, its role in "echoing" the views of the good people of Exeter has been overtaken in some respects by Twitter and the web. Yet there is a fluidity right now about how all these media operate, a fluidity that inhibits hard-and-fast conclusions about the future for print newspapers.

It is possible that if the move to a weekly format fails, the Express and Echo could become an adjunct of the Western Morning News, a stablemate in Northcliffe's South West Media Group. After all, we have seen other media services having to enlarge their geographical areas in response to changing financial circumstances.

Yet news is a peculiar thing. A minor burglary a few miles away is not news; a burglary up the road is. A primary school next door getting bad results is not news for me unless my children go there; a big company going bust elsewhere in the county is, if it has implications for the economic health of the city. Getting "local" news right is very hard to do, and I doubt that newspapers, TV, radio or the internet are yet in a stable state, conceptually or financially.

My own view (pace Marshall McLuhan) is that the medium isn't the message. The polis requires good local journalism, and I don't mind if that journalism is attached to the printed page, the airwaves or the broadband connection, so long as it is somehow sustainably funded. The future of local journalism is not clear.


  • Pictures of the first issue of the Express and Echo, the sub-editors and the machine room are from Exeter Memories.
  • "Old printing press", by -Kj

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