Several zillion words were written yesterday on the sale of the Manchester Evening News to Trinity Mirror – the 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…