Earlier this year the Birmingham Post celebrated its 150th birthday at a gala event in the Great Hall of Birmingham University – a fitting environment for such an historic occasion.
The paper’s long history and its part in the growth of Britain’s second city were colourfully recounted, with all the familiar tales of the Chamberlain glory years and the growth and rebirth of the region’s industrial lifeforce.
But amid all the reflection and celebration of past achievements, we also made a quiet statement of intent for the future of this venerable newspaper. That evening, a new website for the Post was launched, marking a new approach for the newspaper’s response to the challenge of the internet.
From that moment, we were no longer just a newspaper that also happened to publish a companion website. The Post became a true multi-media publisher for whom all media – online, print, mobile – will become equal parts of a service whose only job is to provide its audience with the information it wants at the time it wants it.
And we’re not alone, of course. The newspaper industry – the whole media industry in fact – knows it has to change to remain relevant to a population for whom information is now free and immediate – and access to the new technologies that make it so almost universal.
A once-a-day newspaper in which we journalists tell you – the reader – what we decide are the important events of the previous day is simply not enough in this new information age. Your PC and smartphone aren’t just listening devices, and readers are no longer passive absorbers of news: they are now themselves an essential part of the newsgathering and commenting process. The biggest cliché in editorial departments is nevertheless true: news is now a conversation.
Our growth online since that February evening has been nothing short of phenomenal. I remember challenging the service that provides our online statistics: “Surely we can’t grow more than 50% in one month alone?” I asked.
That growth has continued, and we’ve been praised even in this short time for pioneering some innovative approaches to online publishing. We’ve recruited a small army of informed, opinionated and argumentative bloggers from culture, sport, politics and business. We’ve ‘live blogged’ events in the city, and have more initiatives planned for the near future.
But the change doesn’t end for us with the launch of a new website. The Birmingham Post faces other challenges too, and we’re ready to meet them head on.
With its reputation and influence, it’s always been a paradox that the Post has a relatively small daily sale. This means that the circulation decline that has affected every newspaper in the UK impacts particularly sharply on smaller titles like the Post. It could be argued that we’re therefore amongst the first to face squarely the challenge that every title will have to tackle at some time in its future – namely how to deal with the fact that its audience is very nearly split 50:50 between print and online consumers.
And the circulation challenge has been thrown into even sharper focus in just the past year as the advertising market – the financial lifeblood of our business – shrinks as a consequence of the credit crunch. Advertisers quite rightly want to see more value from their spend with us, and look to titles like the Post to help them make inroads into the digital arena too.
The changing economic landscape has led us to look carefully at how we go about the business of putting together newspapers and websites, and challenged us to rethink all our structures and processes. This has led to the other announcement this week which will see Trinity Mirror Midlands revolutionise all its newsrooms across the region, making better use of resources and completely overhauling outdated newspaper production processes that no longer support our desire to be truly multi-media publishers.
But make no mistake that I am turning my back on 150 years of history. The Post in print remains the defining incarnation of what the Birmingham Post represents, and everything it stands for. I really can’t see that changing anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that we preserve the newspaper exactly as it is, like some museum exhibit of a bygone age.
On the contrary, our success online shows that the audience for the Post’s brand of journalism is growing – not declining. And even for the geekiest of modern consumers, weighed down with Blackberries and Ipods as they are, a modern, relevant PRINT newspaper is as attractive as it ever was.
Our relaunch as a Monday to Friday, compact newspaper, therefore aims to unite these two sides of the media coin. Our online success is a springboard for reinvigorating what we do in print.
We have therefore been asking ourselves some very hard questions about the Post’s ‘DNA’. What is our readership, now and in the future? Is the Post a ‘generalist’ or specialist newspaper – and if the latter, on what should it focus? Where do we make our money (don’t forget, we’re a private business, not a publicly funded media institution), and where will we make it in the future? What do our commercial customers want? What are the non-negotiable elements of the Post’s make-up without which it wouldn’t be the Post?
First: what is the Post for, who is it for, and what is it about?
When Joseph Feeney launched the paper in 1857, it added to an already crowded market for newspapers in the Midlands. There was no radio, TV or internet, of course, and the increasingly literate masses had an insatiable appetite for the information that only newspapers could provide. The Post was very much all things to all men, covering everything from society news to livestock prices and minor local crime to international politics. That formula survived through the 20th century, but as other media developed, existing titles had to more tightly define what they were about in order to create and hold on to a loyal audience. By accident or design, The Post found its role as a paper serving the political and business classes of the booming Midlands.
Now, that is even more the case. When a reader can choose from thousands of magazines, news channels, local blogs and free and paid-for newspapers, developing a ‘USP’ is more important than ever. By serving the business community of the Midlands with a diet of news, insight, analysis and even gossip, the Post provides to a key audience what few others can.
This fact therefore signals clearly the direction The Post must go. It will now develop a news agenda that unashamedly serves the interests of the wealth creators and opinion formers of the region. Politics and culture will continue to form the backbone of the Post, but the title will radically sharpen up its coverage of matters that impact on the business and economic life of the Midlands. Moreover, we will do this in a way that is more relevant and engaging not just to existing readers, but to new generations of entrepreneurs and business professionals too.
Having defined what the Post is about, some things follow from this.
First, we have taken the very difficult decision to cease publishing on Saturdays, in order to concentrate our resources and firepower on the working week. Some of the best elements of Saturday’s edition will be retained – and yes, that does include the irrepressible John Bright.
Next, the vexed question of format. Long gone are the days when any other size than broadsheet signalled that a title couldn’t be taken seriously. Anyone who still holds that view hasn’t observed the development of titles such as The Times and Independent, or major European papers like El Pais.
When ease-of-use and portability are important – and all our research says they are – moving to a compact format is an opportunity to build up the daily and weekly reading experience from scratch in a way that isn’t possible in a larger format. The new-look Post will have clearer sections, a tighter writing style, new specialist elements, and a seamless join with Birminghampost.net.
Overall, the Post will be sharper, more direct, but undoubtedly still The Post in character.
And in keeping with the new spirit of the media, the need for transparency and conversation that I mentioned earlier, we won’t be keeping the readers in the dark about what’s going on as we countdown to the Post’s October re-launch.
Usually, relaunches of titles are shrouded in secrecy, then foisted on the audience at a moment’s notice. Not so with this relaunch. On this page, you’ll see some early drafts of what the new Post may look like, and I will put more on my blog (http://blogs.birminghampost.net/news/marc_reeves/) over the coming days and months. The blog is where I will give regular updates on what we’re doing and what changes we’re developing. I hope readers and advertisers will make their views known, and use the blog to make their own suggestions for what the new Post should – and shouldn’t contain.
This is a significant moment in the Post’s history, and I hope I may be forgiven if I suggest that it could be the most important time since it was founded 150 years ago.
Change always carries risk, and it always attracts criticism. I am confident though that our plans for the development of this great title will ensure it has the very best chance of marking its next major birthday, which I look forward to celebrating with you in 2032!