The sale of MEN

Several zillion words were written yesterday on the sale of the Manchester Evening News to Trinity Mirrorthe details, the commentary, and the rest of the speculation. I’m not going to rehash what’s already been said.But, as a freelance journalist working in my adopted city of Manchester, I’ve had time to ponder what it might mean now I’m past my first wave of fury.

Fury, yes. I’ve not written for the MEN but know many who have. It’s a good, solid, regional paper, albeit one that’s been in gentle decline in recent years chiefly due to neglect by Guardian Media Group and its shameless milking of MEN profits to prop up the loss-making Guardian. It’s only 18 months since the MEN moved into its shiny new HQ in the heart of Manchester city centre – when I visited, it was so new the building still had that strange whiff of new electricals and pristine carpeting. Barely seven months later, the axe fell on 150 staff – half from the MEN itself, the rest from the stable of local titles based in Greater Manchester’s outlying districts. I was angry then, angry that much local news would no longer be reported. So it has proved – those local titles have become shadows of their former selves, while the MEN itself has carried far less comprehensive coverage of the metropolitan area’s affairs.

Trinity Mirror’s purchase does not bode well for the paper’s future. TM has a history of asset-stripping its purchases, slashing staff and then shutting titles. Many TM journalists are rightly incensed by TM’s claims in recent years that it’s been too broke to give them decent pay rises, decent staffing levels and decent kit, because TM doesn’t seem to have had any trouble conjuring up nearly £8m in cash for GMG as part of the £44.8m deal. That £8m could have gone a long way to supporting TM’s existing titles and the staff that produce them.

But what does it mean for the MEN? For Manchester? Rumours were rife today that operations would be moved out to Oldham. It would be disastrous for Manchester if true. A daily paper covering an area populated by 2.5 million people and with no city centre presence could not possibly be expected to maintain even the existing (reduced) standard of coverage. TM has claimed that it’s looking at various options and the Oldham move is not set in stone. Manchester-based freelance journalist, Nigel Barlow, offers a different perspective, suggesting that a move out of town could be beneficial for city reportage, although I’m not convinced myself. I agree with him, though, that it offers a great opportunity for hyperlocal ventures to spring up, take ownership of a patch or beat and flourish.

I’m currently temping at BBC Radio Manchester, which has just received some of its best-ever RAJAR figures.  I think it’s fair to say that BBC regional stations don’t always do local very well, but Manchester does do community pretty well – that’s certainly been my overriding impression over the last 6 weeks on the inside. Obviously, BBC Manchester can’t be a substitute for the MEN although it has always sat comfortably alongside it. I do wonder if the BBC might mop up some of the MEN’s readership if predictions for the paper turn out to be true and it plunges even further into doom and gloom. Time will tell but, for now, the city’s large media sector is watching developments with very keen interest…

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6 thoughts on “The sale of MEN”

  1. Under Pressure

    As someone who works for a Trinity Mirror newspaper, I recognise a lot of the complaints you say you’ve heard, but I do take offence at your suggestion that just because the MEN is owned by Trinity, it won’t be a solid product. Despite the staff cuts, I still think the paper I work on does a very good job and the other papers I see, such as the Liverpool Echo, also still look as though they do an excellent job. I used to work for another regional publisher and compared to them, Trinity does invest in new kit and equipment. At least where I am now they’ve made an attempt to push through some sort of multimedia journalism training with equipment. It’s far from rosy in Trinity, but the assumption that the sale of the MEN will lead to an inferior product doesn’t take into account the determination of journalists to work well in all circumstances. As for MEN readers switching to the radio, I think that’s a big leap to make without much evidence to back it up. Perhaps the real focus of your fury should be channeled into looking at where all the profits from the MEN went, and it wasn’t just back to the Guardian. At the end of the day, Trinity closed papers which weren’t making money. The Guardian kept alive a TV station which was losing a lot of money, damaging a newspaper which was still making money in the process.

  2. @Underpressure It’s not my intention to criticise the journalists working under very difficult conditions for TM papers. On the contrary, they are doing an extraordinarily good job under the circumstances, a testament to their dedication to the job in the face of being ever expected to do more with less.

    My fear for the quality of the MEN under TM is not to do with the journalists working there but the fact that over the last year the quality of local reporting has already dipped heavily thanks to the swingeing job cuts. If the MEN moves to Oldham I seriously worry how some places will get covered – it was bad enough when the local papers had their staff moved into the centre instead of staying on their patch. How will areas like Sale get covered if the hacks are right over the other side of Greater Manchester? Carolyn McCall did suggest a couple of days ago that now the MEN had been sold she expected to see further job cuts there. That can only impact further on the amount of news being reported.

    Of course I don’t expect MEN readers to all suddenly switch to the radio. My point, though, is that many may seek alternative places for their news if the MEN no longer reports on their patch.

    And I totally agree about Channel M – the local joke is that only half a dozen viewers watch it, assuming they can even find it on the channel scanner. I don’t think anyone really understands why so much money – literally millions – has been wasted on it. And for what? That cash could have been used to support the MEN and the local weekly titles during the last couple of very tough years. I find that immensely sad, when so many good journalists have been made redundant but a shit TV station that no one is interested in watching continues to suck up funds.

  3. I’ve only just seen this post. I think asset stripping is a phrase you’d not get away with using if you were writing for a publication which could be sued (with any hope of financial return).

    Your assertion that this is a great time for hyperlocals to spring up just because the MEN is moving to Oldham is based on the assumption that all the reporters will spend their time in Oldham. Surely, if you and one other person can report on stories from across Manchester on your hyperlocal site, then you know that technology makes it very easy for people to report from anywhere.

    As for your point about BBC Manchester mopping up readers and turning them into listeners, a basic understanding of the roles different media play in people’s lives show this wouldn’t be the case.

    I share your anger about the way the MEN was treated. I know many who work there and how hard they work, and how fed up they are at the sniping aimed at them. Under the circumstances, they do a great job. And hopefully, without a TV station and loss-making national newspaper saddled to them, the MEN might start to get a fairer deal.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Dan. It’s more than 4 months since I posted so obviously there’s the benefit of hindsight now but I do think much of what I wrote still applies and I think it’s fair to say I’ve been largely sympathetic to MEN’s situation.

    I co-founded my own hyperlocal at Easter with a colleague, although we’re trying to move away from being branded a hyperlocal as we cover a far wider area than one neighbourhood or so. We’ve picked up a good, solid readership in just over 3 months which I think does rather show that hyperlocals can thrive in the current climate. Whether they can make money is another issue, though, and obviously one we still need to test!

    I agree absolutely that reporters can cover a wide area using modern technology. We do and make no bones about it. MEN has bigger, better resources than Inside the M60 and does so too. It was confirmed last week that the MEN will indeed move to Oldham – it’s good news that they will maintain a city centre office, which was unclear when I posted in February. I think MEN would struggle without a central presence, not so much from a reporting point of view but from a credibility one. Lack of city presence could lead many to question if a Manchester paper is really Manchester-based if it’s out in Oldham. So I think the decision to maintain a central office is a good one and the right one.

    We’ll be watching how the future unfolds for MEN, as I’m sure many will be. And I do genuinely hope that things will improve for the staff there, although as TM has announced there will be another round of job cuts there and I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what the effect of that will be.

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